Item number one is a travel tip: take the train. As I write these words we're nearing Fredericksburg and Amtrak is awesome. No driving, scenery, plenty of spreading-out room, WiFi. This is the way to go.
Several VCU fans are on this train, an early one considering the Rams don't play until Friday night. As usual, the RamNation is traveling in full force.
So the question that has been put to me the most in the past two days: Xavier, or St. Joseph's? Let's review the regular season matchups.
St. Joseph's, the A10 preseason number one, hit the Siegel Center on January 17. The Hawks were 1-1 in the conference, having lost to Butler and beaten Duquesne. The Rams were 2-0 having beaten Dayton at home and the Bonnies on the road. There was big game feel.
You remember how it went. VCU trailed by four with 14 seconds left and managed to tie the game, running away in overtime for the 92-86 win. Darius Theus played a game for the ages: 22 points, 10 assists,
four steals, and zero turnovers. Juvonte Reddic had a 15/17 double-double.
VCU committed just five turnovers in 45 minutes of play.
Notable: Halil Kanacevic, St. Joseph's sixth man, did not play as he was out of town with a death in the family. The St. Joseph's guards–Langston Galloway and Carl Jones–were outstanding as well. Galloway was 5-9 from three and scored 22 points, and Jones frequently beat VCU into the lane, scoring 21 points and dishing five assists.
St. Joseph's provides a matchup problem. Both big men–CJ Aiken and Ronald Roberts–are athletic and tough to handle. When you combine that with guards who can shoot and penetrate, you are a dangerous team. It's somewhat a mystery how they ended up 10th.
As for Xavier…
VCU traveled to Cincinnati after absorbing a beat down in Saint Louis. There were questions to be answered. Xavier was 8-4 in A10 play and entered the February 23 game 52-1 in the Cintas Center since 2006-07.
The Musketeers ran out a formidable pair in point guard Semaj Christian and big man Travis Taylor, and for about 22 minutes things looked bleak. That's when Troy Daniels knocked back two three-pointers to cut a 17-point deficit to 11, and it was a havoc-filled second half.
The 17-point deficit vanished in 6:39 behind a 22-5 burst. A Teddy
Okereafor layup extended the run to 24-5 and gave VCU the lead. During
the run VCU shot 7-10 from the field and committed one turnover. Xavier
shot 1-5 from the field and committed four turnovers. The final nine
in 1:44. VCU didn't trail the final 4:41.
The Rams turned over Xavier 22 times (compared to just 11 for
VCU) and grabbed 13 offensive rebounds (to just THREE for Xavier). That
led to a massive 23 more field goal attempts for VCU.
Christian–a young man who carries the three words VCU fans love the most (Freshman. Point. Guard.)–had 10 turnovers, and Taylor was held to five points and nine rebounds. Side note: boy, can Brad Redford shoot.
Daniels broke his own school-record for threes and led VCU with 19 points and four steals, but it was Rob Brandenberg's day. Returning home, Rob scored 18 points and knocked down four free throws in the final 23 seconds to preserve the victory.
Xavier is weapon-filled. The Muskies have a nice inside-outside combination and buffet that with the shooting of Redford and the steadiness of guard Dee Davis.
So who do I want to see VCU play?
It doesn't matter, and I mean that. This VCU team, more so than any I've been around, is about an Emersonian self-reliance. We've said it 100 times this year but it's true: it's about us.
When the Rams play with what Shaka Smart calls spirit, it's a tough team to beat. You've seen it in glimpses and you've seen it in long runs. Knock down shots, get into the press, close off passing lanes with suffocating traps. Get the opposition grabbing their shorts. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Both Xavier and St. Joseph's feature high quality guards who can get into the lane. Those guards can feed lights-out shooters and big men who can handle the ball and score. That's what needs to be eliminated and it can be done. But that's an internally-driven solution and somewhat irrelevant to the opposition.
We can't fake it. In year's past we've talked about those "phony BCS schools" that talk a big game,a nd talk a big conference, but when VCU gets them on the floor the rams carve up the opposition. Our job is to avoid playing like that, to keep playing with a verve that excites the country.
Smart calls it spirit. I prefer calling it playing like a rattlesnake. Either way, bring 'em on, shake the rattle, and strike with precision and swiftness. Then, let the venom of havoc seep into the physical and mental awareness of either squad.