What was hinted at earlier this week is now official: VCU will take on the defending national champs, the Duke Blue Devils, November 20th at Madison Square Garden for the Rams’ first championship round game of this year’s 2K Classic.
The other side of the bracket will pit last year’s national runner-up, Wisconsin, against the Georgetown Hoyas meaning the Rams will take on one of those two, win or lose, Sunday November 22 in either the championship or third-place game.
The Rams have lost their last two games against that group, dropping a four-point neutral court loss to Georgetown in November of 2013 and fell to Duke the previous season, 67-58 in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Prior to that they had dished out NCAA tournament losses to both the Blue Devils and Hoyas, first defeating Duke in the 2007 tournament thanks to an Eric Maynor dagger with 1.8 seconds remaining, then dominating the Hoyas in 2011 en route to the Rams first and only Final 4 appearance.
VCU has never played Wisconsin.
A QUICK LOOK AT THE DUKE BLUE DEVILS
The Blue Devils are riding a six-game winning streak that includes the shining moment all the other 350 D1 hoops teams dreamt about last season but weren’t able to steal from Coach K’s squad. Gone are Duke’s top-four leading scorers from that team including three first-round NBA Draft pics, two of which went in the top-10. Being one of college hoops marquee programs however that means the Blue Devils will simply look to replace one group of blue chip freshmen with another, this year brining in three McDonald’s All-Americans and a total of four top-25 recruits including ESPN’s No.3 overall 2015 recruit in the form of 6’8 198 small forward Brandon Ingram.
Overall the Blue Devils will be a very talented team but one somewhat lacking in experience. Duke senior Amile Jefferson and junior Matt Jones both averaged six points per contest in their 21 minutes per game last season. They are joined by 7′ 250lb senior, Marshall Plumlee, who posted 2.2 ppg in under 10 minutes a night. The Blue Devils will bring seven freshmen to MSG and nine underclassmen in total.
Another name on the Duke bench Ram fans will recognize is that of assistant coach, Jeff Capel. The former Duke guard was named VCU head coach after one year as an assistant and helped the Rams in their return to prominence starting with a 2004 NCAA tournament run and a one-point NCAA tourney loss to the Chris Paul led Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Capel left the Rams after three seasons to take the same position at Oklahoma where he coached five years before being let go.
With so much player turnover it’s hard to predict what the Blue Devils will look like next season but having had a top-10 efficient offense dating back to the 2008-09 season you can expect a team that knows how to score.
A QUICK LOOK AT THE VCU RAMS
VCU will look quite different for the obvious reasons: No Shaka, no Graham, no Weber. The Rams lost Briante Weber to a knee injury on January 31st and lost five of their final 10 regular season games without him. VCU seemed to figure things out after that however, reeling off a four-game win streak through Brooklyn to secure the Rams’ first-ever A-10 title. The Rams had a chance to beat Ohio State in the their NCAA tournament game following that run but came up just short in overtime. Treveon Graham had just 10 points in his 42 minutes in that one in an offensive clunker of a game for the Rams, yet VCU was able to go the distance with an under-seeded Buckeyes team. The black and gold will need to find ways to win without the scoring production of Graham next season and I am of the opinion it will be with a noticeable change in approach, namely in VCU’s use of their bigs. Look for VCU to use bigger lineups under Wade than under Smart and I expect more diversity in their looks on the floor as well. While havoc will hope to make an appearance against the Blue Devils, VCU will throw some matchup zone looks at Duke that wouldn’t have really been considered by the previous staff. Offensively I expect more emphasis on front court play than in years past and expect Mo Alie-Cox, Justin Tillman and Mike Gilmore to be the biggest beneficiaries. Don’t get me wrong, VCU’s guards will still likely do the majority of the scoring but I expect the aforementioned trio to get a lot more looks than frontcourts of years past might have. That front court will be needed early against a Duke team with a ton of talent standing 6’9 or taller.
PROJECTED STARTING MATCHUPS
PG – Derryck Thornton v JeQuan Lewis
Lewis will have the experience advantage against the extremely talented freshman out of Findlay Prep who could likely start for Duke a year ahead of schedule after reclassifying to the class of 2015. The two are actually quite similar in that both love to attack on both sides of the ball (not to mention the obvious size comparisons). The question is will PG Thornton show enough to Coach K and Co. to jump the likes of Grayson Allen and Matt Jones for the starting spot this early in the season.
SG – Grayson Allen v Melvin Johnson
Allen spent a lot of his freshman season observing from the bench but also gave Duke fans plenty to be excited about including a crucial 16 points in his 21 minutes during last year’s national championship game. The former McDonald’s All-American is an explosive guard that can really heat up but also perhaps showed signs of trying to do too much in his limited role last season. I expect his wild side to be somewhat tamed with more PT this season and look forward to a shootout between him and VCU’s Melvin Johnson this November. Johnson will be just a quick train ride from his home in the Bronx so I expect “the Melvin” to potentially put on a show under the bright lights of MSG against the defending champs.
SF – Brandon Ingram v Jordan Burgess
Jordan Burgess has done much of his damage at VCU on the defensive end and will look to lock down on Duke’s highest rated incoming recruit, Brandon Ingram. Physically Ingram is a Terry Larrier clone and averaged a 24-point, 10-rebound double-double his final season of high school ball. Ingram can hit shots all over the floor at a high percentage including a 42% clip from range his senior season. Burgess is a much more physical player than Ingram and will have a serious strength advantage over the blue chipper. This should be a fun matchup and a great test for Burgess 2.0.
PF – Chase Jeter v Justin Tillman
This could just as easily be Amile Jefferson this early in the season but I’ll go ahead and guess Jeter due to his upside. Jeter looks and plays a lot like VCU’s Michael Gimore but comes to Duke as a consensus top-20 recruit. At 6’10 215 Jeter has the length to bother Tillman and can also step out and hurt you with his jumper. While I look forward to this matchup I also can’t wait to see Jeter and Gilmore go at it, as well as Tillman and Jefferson in what should be some fun low post battles.
C – Sean Obi v Mo Alie-Cox
An interesting VCU connection to this one, Obi left Rice before former VCU assistant turned Rice head coach, Mike Rhoades, ever had a chance to coach him. Recruited to the Owls by Ben Braun, Obi left Rice to join the Blue Devils after a stellar freshman season in Houston where he averaged 11.4 point and 9.3 rpg while shooting over 59% from the field. Obi is a bruiser at 6’9 265 and an extremely strong rebounder, particularly on defense where he gobbled up 30% of missed shots while on the floor, the nation’s second best defensive rebounding percentage. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Coach K opted for an experienced Duke guy like Marshall Plumlee (7′ 250, former McDonald’s All-American) at the 5 to start the games instead, either of which bring the size needed to matchup with the power Alie-Cox.
Fans can buy tickets here: VCU v Duke, 2015 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden
Plan your trip with other Ram fans by joining the discussion here: Planning Manhattan: 2015