After a whirlwind offseason that saw changes in leadership (out: Norwood Teague, in: Ed McLaughlin) and conference affiliation (a jump from CAA to A-10), we can get back to the business of playing basketball.
Shaka Smart leads a highly-touted VCU squad (No.27 in both the AP and Coaches polls) into battle against crosstown exhibition rival Virginia Union. While the results of tonight’s game won’t make a scratch in either teams official record, make no mistake, this long exhibition rivalry means a lot to both teams and their fans, as the schools are seperated by just a couple of blocks and an interstate highway.
The last time the Panthers got the better of VCU was in 2005 in a 83-78 win for our Division II rival. That Panthers squad however was coming off a DII National Championship under the leadership of coaching legend Dave Robbins. This year’s group is coming off a 15-14 season under second-year coach Luqman Jabeer, looking to restore the glory and build a legacy of his own at Union.
The Rams are looking to build upon last year’s success, a 29-7 record (most wins by any VCU team) by a team that pushed Indiana to the brink in last year’s NCAA tournament third round.
Exhibition’s are generally littered by new faces, but after losing just one player to graduation, VCU will play a deep, experienced squad who’s only newcomers include ESPN top-100 shooting guard Melvin Johnson, and one-time Rivals 4-star big Justin Tuoyo.
A lot of the preseason hype and pressure falls on sophomore swing man Treveon Graham. Graham is expected to fill the void left by last year’s leading scorer, Bradford Burgess. We expect Shaka to test out the wheels on his new scorer for a good portion of tonight’s matchup to see how the 6’5 DC native responds.
One thing is certain, VCU will have a packed Siegel Center crowd behind them (an expected sellout tonight), as season tickets have reached an all-time high in what has been one of the best home court advantages in the country. Coming off a successful European tour this summer, the Rams will hope to shake off the early nerves and get back to their havoc-wreaking ways of the previous season.
A quick look at the teams…
VCU (29-7 last season)
Key losses: G/F Bradford Burgess (13.4 pts, 5 reb)
Key additions: SG Melvin (ESPN top-100), C Justin Tuoyo
The Rams were expected to be in rebuilding most last season after losing four starters from a Final 4 squad the previous season. Not only did they meet whatever expectations there were coming into last season, they far exceeded them by winning the most games by any VCU team with just the 9th-youngest team in the country. VCU was able to be so successful by employing Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” system of defense, a system that saw the Rams force more turnovers than anyone in the CAA, and rank among the best in the nation in that category. With an astounding six players averaging at least one steal a game, the Rams made a living on the defensive end, forcing 17.9 turnovers per game. They’ll look to do more of that tonight but also increase efficiancy on the offensive side after hitting just 41% of their attempts last season (8th in the CAA). Look for big early numbers from Juvonte Reddic, Darius Theus and Treveon Graham before VCU experiments with different looks and younger lineups.
Virginia Union (15-14 last season)
Key losses: C Juan Richards
Key additions: PG Ken Pankey
The Panthers return most of their production from last season’s squad that finished a game over .500 and are lead by junior Damion Harris (13.2 pts, 7.9 reb) and senior Calvin Brown (11.3 pts, 2.8 assits, 34% 3-pt%). They’re coached by 30-year old Luqman Jabeer, coincidentally VUU’s all-time leader in both steals and assists, as well as a member of their 2005 National Championship team. If there is one thing Luqman knows, it’s success, so expect a fiery effort from this mature Union squad. And it’s mature they’ll have to be, as their 15.6 turnovers per game has surely been highlighted by the Rams coaching staff heading into tonight’s matchup in front of a turnover hungry Siegel Center audience.
Game tips at 7:30Pm at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. 100 tickets remained as of the beginning of my writing of this article, so expect a standing room only sellout once again. You can listen to the game live on FM107.3 or by streaming it through VCUAthletics.com.