College Basketball Nation: Treveon Graham

Weekend Picks: Florida over Kentucky?

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
12:00
PM ET
About last weekend.

Well, Wichita State stayed undefeated after securing a win over Northern Iowa, but most predicted that.

Larry Brown is in the national coach of the year conversation nearly 30 years after winning the national title with Kansas. That SMU win over Cincinnati was a major step for Brown’s program.

I was surprised by Iowa’s stand against Michigan. Memphis came from behind and then stayed strong late against a Gonzaga team that stopped playing defense in the last five minutes. Traevon Jackson hit a game winner for Wisconsin against Michigan State.

Just the typical mid-February chaos.

This weekend, however, is a bit more difficult to assess.

But I’ll do my best.

Last week: 4-1

Overall: 35-15

Saturday


VCU at No. 12 Saint Louis, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Remember VCU? Well, the Rams got lost on the national scene for a few reasons. They didn’t get off to the dazzling start many had anticipated with the talent that Shaka Smart brought back, including leading scorer Treveon Graham. The Rams still wreak havoc on defense (no team in America forces more turnovers per possession than VCU, according to Ken Pomeroy). But this is one of America’s most mysterious offensive groups. Smart’s squad has shot 41.3 percent from the field in conference play (11th in the league). The Rams have the Atlantic 10’s top scoring offense (77.3 PPG), but they’re 101st in adjusted offensive efficiency (according to Pomeroy). Saint Louis is much easier to figure out. Jim Crews’ squad has been flawless since a Dec. 1 home loss to 26-0 Wichita State. The Billikens are third in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett are a potent pair on both ends of the floor, but they haven’t faced an offense like this.

Prediction: VCU 60, SLU 56

No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For weeks, Florida has looked like a bored team just itching to play an opponent that can truly give it a fight for 40 minutes. The Gators have won 16 in a row and are 7-2 against the BPI’s top 50. Since a December stretch that included a loss to Connecticut and wins over Memphis and Kansas, however, they’ve played only two teams in the BPI’s top 50 (Missouri and Tennessee) and zero in the top 25. Florida is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, but Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been tested in a month. Literally. That’s not its fault. The SEC is bad. The Gators can’t control that, but this is a sharp turn from what it has dealt with in league play. Fighting on the road against a Kentucky team that has that next-level ability when it’s focused -- and I assume John Calipari’s team will be focused for a huge matchup -- will not be an easy affair. Plus, the Wildcats have the edge in offensive rebounding rate (43.2 percent to 37.5 percent) and free throw rate (54.8 percent to 45.5 percent), per ESPN Stats & Info. Turnover rate, however, will be more important. The last time Florida (24th in defensive turnover rate) played a young, athletic team with ballhandling challenges (Kentucky is 113th nationally in offensive turnover rate), Kansas left Gainesville. Fla., with a loss. Expect the same result in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday.

Prediction: Florida 87, Kentucky 84

No. 20 Memphis at No. 24 UConn, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: In the first meeting, DeAndre Daniels was a monster. He finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in UConn’s 83-73 win in Memphis. Shaq Goodwin scored 10 points (4-for-9) in that game. The rematch will once again focus on the two big men inside. Both programs field comparable backcourts. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Lasan Kromah can play with any backcourt in the country, but Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon Jr. can, too. Any of the aforementioned guards could go big and carry his respective squad to the win, but Daniels and Goodwin could be the difference-makers. Will be the difference-makers. If Goodwin doesn’t match Daniels and contain him with stingy defense, then the veteran big man will have another huge night for UConn. But Goodwin learned from that game. He’s been fearless in recent weeks, the sign of a young player who recognizes his significance to Josh Pastner’s plans.

Prediction: Memphis 75, UConn 70

Sunday

No. 6 Villanova at No. 18 Creighton, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1:
On Thursday night, the wonderful minds at ESPN Stats & Info distributed an email titled "A Complete Breakdown of Doug McDermott's Scoring (Through Feb. 13)" shortly after the national player of the year frontrunner -- and it’s not close right now -- scored 26 points (11-for-19) and hit a late 3-pointer in Creighton’s 68-63 win at Butler. That memo included stats like this one: "Doug McDermott has 2,824 career points, 15th all time in Division I history. He is averaging a career-high 25.3 points per game this season." By the end of this season, McDermott should be one of the 10 greatest scorers in Division I history. Think about that. But he wasn’t the guy who torched Villanova in the first game. Ethan Wragge was 9-for-14 from the 3-point line in a 96-68 win over Villanova last month. He’s a 49 percent shooter from beyond the arc, but he’s made eight of 22 since that breathtaking display, so maybe Creighton’s 21 conference record-setting 3s against Villanova last month were an anomaly. The problem is that Creighton (39 percent from the 3-point line) gets hot often and Villanova just hasn’t done a great job of defending against the Bluejays’ best weapon (Big East teams shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line against Villanova). Another loss for Jay Wright’s crew in Omaha, Neb.

Prediction: Creighton 77, Villanova 72

No. 21 Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: This is an interesting game for so many reasons. It’s a battle between a Michigan team that’s tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten and a Wisconsin team that has to build momentum for a strong finish to keep Bo Ryan’s streak of top-four finishes in the league alive. In recent weeks, both teams have shown some of their flaws. Michigan is an offensive turbo-engine (No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy) that’s 18-2 when it registers a 105.0 offensive rating, according to ESPN Stats & Info. But, Big Ten player of the year candidate Nik Stauskas struggled during a recent 1-2 stretch for Michigan. Wisconsin has always been a stubborn defensive team, and the Badgers have gone from the 90s to the 40s in recent weeks in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. But they were No. 1 last season. Both teams are regaining their stride entering this game. Wisconsin, however, will stumble on the road.

Prediction: Michigan 64, Wisconsin 60

 

It was another eventful Saturday in the world of college basketball.

These 10 players were responsible for some of the most significant performances of the day.

  1. Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) -- A few weeks ago, Fred Hoiberg identified the senior as the glue guy who has helped him rebuild Iowa State basketball. The veteran recorded 20 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three steals and three blocks in No. 16 Iowa State’s 81-75 home win over No. 22 Kansas State. He also blocked Shane Southwell's 3-point attempt in the final seconds, snatched a key rebound and hit a pair of late free throws to seal it.
  2. Treveon Graham (VCU) -- The junior guard scored a career-high 34 points in VCU’s 97-89 double-overtime win at La Salle. Graham scored six straight points to send the game into its first overtime. He also finished with 12 rebounds and two assists for a VCU squad that has won 12 of its last 14 games.
  3. [+] EnlargeLe'Bryan Nash
    AP Photo/Sue OgrockiWith Marcus Smart struggling, Le'Bryan Nash came through with a huge game to lead Oklahoma State past West Virginia.
  4. Le'Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State) -- Travis Ford needed some help on a horrible day for Marcus Smart, who fouled out with just four points and a 1-for-7 tally. Nash stepped up. He recorded 29 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two blocks in No. 11 Oklahoma State’s 81-75 win over West Virginia, which played tough for 40 minutes.
  5. Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova) -- The controversial offensive foul call at the end of No. 4 Villanova’s 94-85 overtime win over Marquette shouldn’t mask the exceptional effort by Arcidiacono. The point guard finished with 20 points, 11 assists and, most impressively, zero turnovers in 39 minutes. He also grabbed a critical loose ball and steadied the Wildcats in the extra period.
  6. Isaiah Taylor (Texas) -- Why are the Longhorns legitimate Big 12 contenders now after winning three consecutive games against ranked opponents (Iowa State, Kansas State and Baylor)? Because players such as Taylor continue to step up for Rick Barnes. The guard finished with 27 points (10-for-18), three assists and three steals in Texas’ 74-60 road win over Baylor.
  7. Kendall Williams (New Mexico) -- The Lobos dealt with some tough losses during the nonconference season, but they’re 6-1 in league play after a 68-66 victory over Colorado State. Williams finished with 23 points, five assists and one steal in that game. He hit 5 of 10 3-pointers.
  8. Michael Frazier II (Florida) -- The guard anchored a balanced attack in No. 6 Florida’s 67-41 win over Tennessee. Frazier finished with 17 points (3-for-6 from beyond the arc), four rebounds and two assists. The Gators haven’t lost since Dec. 2.
  9. Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) -- It wasn’t a pretty performance. But No. 2 Syracuse scored a 64-52 win at Miami in a tough road game. Ennis continues to make a case for “best point guard in America” status. He finished with 14 points, five rebounds and four assists. That effort included some clutch plays in the final minutes.
  10. Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky) -- The sophomore hasn’t been a consistent offensive threat, but his defensive presence is undeniable. He only scored eight points in No. 14 Kentucky’s 79-54 win over Georgia. But he also recorded six steals, six blocks and altered multiple shots. He's such a vital player for that young Kentucky team.
  11. Chase Fieler (Florida Gulf Coast) -- The “Dunk City” contributor had an impressive stat line during Florida Gulf Coast’s 83-62 win over Kennesaw State. He hit 7 of 14 shots and went 9-for-9 from the free throw line for 24 points while also recording 7 rebounds, one block and two steals.

VCU survives battle of contrasts with UVa

November, 12, 2013
11/12/13
11:29
PM ET

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Fans who tuned in to the final three minutes of No.14 VCU’s 59-56 victory over No. 25 Virginia on Tuesday night didn’t quite witness a display indicative of the entire game. Those last possessions, culminating in Treveon Graham’s highlight-reel 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds remaining, were certainly more dramatic.

Graham’s trey -- and UVA’s missed 3 on the game’s final possession -- sent the vocal visiting VCU fans into a frenzy while the Cavalier faithful fell silent amidst the sellout crowd of 13,881 inside John Paul Jones Arena. Ultimately, the Rams’ 3-pointers -- 5-for-14, four of which they hit in the second half -- and their swarming havoc defense gave them the edge over the Cavaliers, who shot 1-for-8 from behind the arc.

The score stayed close the entire night (nine ties, six lead changes, each team holding a seven-point lead at one point) in a deliberately-paced, whistle-ridden battle between Virginia’s two top-25 teams that hadn’t faced each other since 1998.

Five minutes in, the teams totaled eight fouls -- and had only taken 10 shots. Foul calls were up to 27 by the end of the first half, 48 by game’s end. UVa struggled offensively in the early minutes, passing too many times and not driving the lane enough. Meanwhile, VCU hit an offensive rhythm, driving to the basket on consecutive possessions and drawing fouls. Still, the Cavaliers kept the score close with fiery plays like senior Joe Harris’ 3-pointer four minutes into the game (Harris led all Cavalier scorers with 18 points in 34 minutes) and Mike Tobey’s blocked shot with two minutes remaining in the half.

[+] EnlargeTreveon Graham
AP Photo/Steve HelberTreveon Graham's 3-pointer late vaulted VCU to victory over Virginia in the first meeting between the schools in 15 years.
And though they'd prepared for weeks in practice, the Cavaliers still struggled against Shaka Smart’s swarming full-court pressure (which led the country in steals last season), turning the ball over 11 times in the first half.

Despite the numerous foul calls, neither team shot well from the free throw line, with VCU only hitting 40 percent of its foul shots to Virginia’s 57.6 percent.

With just over three minutes remaining in the first half, the Cavaliers surged, taking their first lead of the game, 22-21, while the Rams missed several baskets and struggled against the Cavaliers' defense.

“This game is an example of why Virginia is so good on the defensive end,” Smart said afterward. “They take you out of what you are trying to do. I thought we did a good job of playing fast but we did not have too many opportunities.”

Virginia held a two-point lead at halftime and started the second half strong, crashing the boards for rebounds and passing efficiently while driving the basket. VCU kept the score close by hitting two 3s in the opening minutes of the half.

Each time UVa looked to move ahead, VCU answered, often with a basket from Graham, who led all scorers with 22 points and stepped up after VCU's big men got into foul trouble early in the second half. Both teams picked up their offensive pace while slowing their foul pace. VCU still worked to force turnovers, adding eight more (last season the Rams were 27-1 when forcing 15 or more turnovers).

The Wahoos broke through VCU’s defense more effectively and turned the ball over less in the second half, building up to a seven-point lead with six minutes remaining. But the Rams refused to go away, staying tough defensively and forcing hurried shots.

“It’s tough,” Harris said of VCU’s defense. “That’s their whole mantra -- trying to play up-tempo offensively and up in your face defensively in the half-court and full-court. It’s definitely a different way to play.”

With a minute remaining, UVa was down by one and had possession. Harris airballed a 3-point and the Cavaliers fouled Briante Weber, who missed the front end of a one-and-one. Virginia rebounded and sophomore Malcolm Brogdon drove the lane, drawing the foul. Brodgon missed the first free throw but nailed the second, tying the score with 9.7 seconds remaining.

And then, almost in slow motion, the Rams took control, passing the ball several times before dishing it out to Graham.

“When I got the ball back, I knew there were only three seconds left,” Graham said. “I take those kind of throwback shots every day in practice. I was confident enough to know if Rob [Brandenberg] would throw it back I would have made it. It was close toward the end of the game, so I was thinking that I needed to pick up my game.”

In doing so, Graham sealed the close win for the Rams, who next face Winthrop on Saturday. The Cavaliers will battle Davidson in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, and said tonight’s close loss was a boost in looking ahead at their next opponents.

“I think this loss is going to end up being a blessing,” Brogdon said. “Even though we started the year ranked, we need to not get too high on ourselves, take it down a notch and work harder in practice. We won’t play another team that plays at a faster tempo, so we’ll be ready for any kind of pace a team tries to play against us.”

Unless these two teams meet again in the postseason, of course.
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. Starting Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, we'll unveil the final six: Charleston, 2K Sports, Diamond Head, CBE, Wooden and Maui. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Editor's Note: An earlier version of this bracket had a pair of incorrect matchups. We apologize for the mix-up.)

When and where: Nov. 21-22, 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Initial thoughts: The bracket seems to grant Georgetown an easy path to the title game. Northeastern lost its top two scorers -- Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee -- from last season (29.9 PPG combined). And Kansas State is recovering from a tumultuous offseason that included the loss of Angel Rodriguez and Rodney McGruder. Georgetown’s opening-round opponent, Charlotte, had offensive issues last year (187th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) and now top scorer Chris Braswell is gone.

A title, however, is not a guarantee. The Hoyas will probably travel to San Juan without Greg Whittington, who recently tore his ACL. And the other side of the bracket is much tougher, even though Long Beach State is depleted after multiple offseason dismissals. Florida State struggled last season but the Seminoles were young so most of their roster returns, although they’ll miss Michael Snaer. Michigan is the obvious favorite. The Wolverines will be led by Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, a pair of players who would have been first-round draft picks last month had they decided to leave school after their team’s national title game loss to Louisville in April. Freshman Derrick Walton will probably follow Trey Burke as the team’s new point guard. He’ll be surrounded by a strong crew. VCU will be tough, too. The HAVOC defense helped VCU acquire the nation’s highest turnover rate last season. The Rams, however, lost point guard Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. Still, they haven’t lost much steam with a solid recruiting class and Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon in the mix now.

Things could get interesting on Friday in this tournament.

Matchup I can’t wait to see: Florida State has a lot to prove. Last season was a mess for Leonard Hamilton, who recently received a contract extension. His program has a chance, however, to make an early statement in the 2013-14 season with a win over a VCU squad that will be a Top 25 program entering the season. But Shaka Smart has some new faces, and his squad must identify a new leader now that Theus is gone.

[+] EnlargeMcGary/Robinson
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III could have been first-round NBA draft picks following Michigan's run to the national title game.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Can you say rematch? The last time Michigan and VCU met, the Wolverines pummeled the Rams in the third round of the NCAA tournament. That 25-point victory was an embarrassment for a VCU squad that was completely out of rhythm from tipoff. But the Rams are deep again. And the Wolverines have a couple of potential lottery picks running the operation again. I’d love to see these two squads face off again in the semis.

Five players to watch:

Treveon Graham, VCU: The Rams are often praised for their defensive strengths. Last season, however, VCU proved its worth on offense, too -- averaging 78.0 points (11th in the nation). Graham, the team’s top scorer, was a catalyst. He averaged 15.1 PPG and 5.8 RPG. He also hit 36.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Graham doesn’t waste minutes, either. He had the Atlantic 10’s top offensive rating (118.1 per KenPom.com, among players who used at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions). Last season was a breakout campaign for this guy. If VCU reaches its ceiling, the 6-foot-5 guard/forward could earn All-American consideration.

Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, Michigan: After the Wolverines rumbled to the national championship game in Atlanta, many expected McGary and Robinson to take their talents to the NBA. The two youngsters had a chance to turn pro and make millions. But their decision to return means that the Wolverines will enter the season as Big Ten contenders again. There’s a huge gap at PG, a spot that was occupied by Wooden Award winner Trey Burke last season. With McGary and Robinson back, John Beilein has one of America’s top centers and one of the nation’s most versatile wings. This tournament will be an early opportunity for the duo to prove that Michigan is still potent without Burke.

Okaro White, Florida State: There’s a lot of pressure on White right now. Florida State will enter 2013-14 without top scorer and veteran Michael Snaer. Terrance Shannon transferred. And Leonard Hamilton will be forced to rely on some young players again in a league (ACC) that could be the nation’s best conference with the arrival of Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse. But White made major strides in his junior campaign. The 6-8 forward averaged 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks. He hit 81.5 percent of his free throws, and he was 10th in the ACC with a 4.13 block percentage (KenPom.com). But can he lead this group? We’ll find out in Puerto Rico.

Markel Starks, Georgetown: Greg Whittington’s torn ACL jeopardizes his entire season and it also jeopardizes the Hoyas’ season. Three other starters from last season return. But it was much easier to view Georgetown as a threat to win the inaugural title in the new Big East when Whittington was healthy. To maintain that hope -- if Whittington can’t return -- Starks has to guide a team that still has some talented pieces from last season and will add UCLA transfer Josh Smith after the first semester. Starks did it all for Georgetown last year (12.8 points, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 41.7 percent from the 3-point line). But the Hoyas might need him to do even more in 2013-14.

Title-game prediction: VCU over Georgetown.

The Hoyas should reach the title game, but I think they’ll face a VCU squad that’s equipped with a multitude of talent and depth. Smart has a rotation that could be 10-11 players deep. And even though he has lost a few veterans, he will gain the services of former top recruits Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess, two players who were academically ineligible for competition last season. And Shannon, the Florida State transfer, will be available, too. Smart’s HAVOC attack demands talent and depth, and he has both. This is the most skilled squad that he has had at VCU. That’s just too much for Georgetown to overcome, especially with VCU’s interior advantage (see Shannon and 6-9 forward Juvonte Reddic). These Rams will be dangerous. They’ll prove it in San Juan.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: VCU over Georgetown
Jeff Goodman: VCU over Northeastern
Seth Greenberg: Michigan over Georgetown
Andy Katz: Michigan over Georgetown
Jason King: VCU over Kansas State
Dana O'Neil: VCU over Kansas State
1. The Anaheim Classic is going through some changes that should make it a more intimate event, building up toward a more unique championship day. The tournament, played over Thanksgiving weekend, has been at the Anaheim Convention Center, but has had plenty of sparsely populated games. So, the plan is to move the first two days of the tournament to Cal State-Fullerton's Titan Gym. The final day of the event will be played at the Honda Center in Anaheim to give it more of an elite ending. And to raise the profile of the event, the name will no longer be the Anaheim Classic but rather the Wooden Legacy. The first two rounds will be Nov. 28 and 29 with the championship day on Dec. 1. The tournament has headline teams in Creighton, San Diego State, Marquette, Arizona State and Miami with the College of Charleston, George Washington and the host Titans. Fullerton needs to take advantage of their homecourt and play well for two reasons -- to play rare higher-level games at home and to ensure the crowds are decent.

2. The cuts for the World University Games team playing in Russia could be some of the hardest for USA basketball. Junior national director Jim Boeheim of Syracuse will have a hard time whittling down this list. The team, which will train the last week of June in Colorado Springs, should be the overwhelming favorite in the event. But getting down to the cut list of 24 will be quite a chore for Boeheim and WUG coaches Bob McKillop (Davidson), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and John Beilein (Michigan). Here is the list: Eric Atkins (Notre Dame), Markel Brown (Oklahoma State), Deonte Burton (Nevada), Quinn Cook (Duke), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Davante Gardner (Marquette), Treveon Graham (VCU), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame), P.J. Hairston (North Carolina), A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Luke Hancock (Louisville), Joe Harris (UVA), Tyler Haws (BYU), Andre Hollins (Minnesota), Rodney Hood (Duke), Josh Huestis (Stanford), Cory Jefferson (Baylor), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Alex Kirk (New Mexico), Devyn Marble (Iowa), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Chasson Randle (Stanford), Will Sheehey (Indiana), Aaron White (Iowa), Kendall Williams (New Mexico).

3. The list will be cut down to 12. Everyone could use making the team to better themselves. But Hood could use it more than anyone else after sitting out last season as a transfer from Mississippi State. Hood needs game action before he starts to star for Duke. Fair, Grant, Hairston, Jefferson, McDermott and Payne all are trying out for the team after making the decision to return to school. The fact that two players from Indiana, Duke, Notre Dame, New Mexico and Iowa are on the first list is a sign about these three teams' future next season. Kirk and Grant have a chance to be headline players next season. So too, does White. The one player who could benefit as much as anyone is Ferrell, who will have to be even more of a playmaker next season without Victor Oladipo on his wing.
NEW YORK -- For years, the debate has raged over whether or not conference tournaments are really a good idea. And, sure, if you have a league that plays a home-and-away round robin -- like the Big 12, Missouri Valley or West Coast -- you'd think that your regular season has already supplied some really good information. A conference like that doesn't want to see its regular-season last-place team waltz into the conference tourney and steal the automatic bid. (Certainly bubble teams from other leagues don't want to see that happen.) I get that.

But what if your conference has 16 members, and each team plays just 16 league games? Such was the case with the Atlantic 10 this season, and I'll be honest. Based on that small smattering of regular-season basketball, I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived at the Barclays Center to watch the A-10 semifinals.

So this particular conference tournament was absolutely a good idea. I know much more about the two winners, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis, than I did before. Nothing like March basketball on a neutral floor to add some clarity. Here's what I learned. (I mean besides the fact that the VCU band is really, really good.)

Havoc happens

If Rams coach Shaka Smart were a brand manager for a Fortune 500 company, he'd deserve a big promotion. The fact that you already know all about the brand of basketball played by a mid-major that until this season was a member of the Colonial Athletic Association is something of a tribute to Smart and the success he's enjoyed in Richmond.

That style is branded as "Havoc," of course, and its purpose is to get the other team to commit turnovers. This season in A-10 play, VCU's opponents gave the ball away on 27 percent of their possessions, easily the highest such number in the league. I knew all about the style, naturally, and all about that remarkable number before I saw Smart's team beat Massachusetts 71-62 in the second semifinal Saturday afternoon.

But until you've seen it in person, it's hard to appreciate Havoc's ability to make the other team's game plan and preparation more or less useless. UMass actually took good care of the ball for the game's first eight minutes or so -- Smart would say afterward he thought his team was "sluggish" early -- but that soon changed dramatically. By the time the dust had settled and the Rams had emerged with their nine-point win, the Minutemen had given the ball away 24 times in a 75-possession game. In light of the fact that Derek Kellogg's team committed a turnover on fully 32 percent of its possessions, it's fairly amazing UMass kept the game as close as it was.

[+] EnlargeDwayne Evans
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsDwayne Evans goes up for two of his 24 points in Saint Louis' semifinal win over Butler.
Speaking of amazing, if you're a VCU opponent, the truly insidious thing about Havoc is what it does to you even on possessions where you don't give the ball away. Take Kellogg's team. In theory, UMass should like a fast tempo. This was, after all, the fastest-paced team in A-10 play this season (69 possessions per 40 minutes). But in practice, going fast against the Rams did not work well at all. For long stretches of the second half, the Minutemen were sped up to the point where they would take the first shot they got -- very often a bad shot -- simply to get an attempt off before the next (inevitable) turnover.

This offense needs a cool name, too

For all the acclaim that Havoc has won, the truth that is VCU's offense is better than its defense. Much better. During A-10 play, Smart's team scored 1.13 points per possession, while no other team topped 1.08. Granted, that kind of excellence wasn't evident against UMass, but you can bet Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews knows what's Smart's offense can do, and is preparing accordingly ahead of Sunday's tournament final.

Treveon Graham has put together an excellent season, but on a day when he went 1-of-12 from the floor, it was Troy Daniels who got the Rams over the hump. The 6-foot-4 senior hit 6 of 9 3s on his way to 20 points. Yet even in a game when Daniels' teammates were off with their shooting, VCU's biggest advantage was that it committed just eight turnovers. The Rams are almost as good at avoiding turnovers on offense as they are at forcing them on defense, and the truly enormous turnover margin that results has fueled much of this team's success.

Now the scary part: Saint Louis may be even better than VCU

In the other semifinal at Barclays, the Billikens beat Butler 67-56. If you read Dana O'Neil's piece on the Billikens, you know that no less an observer than Butler coach Brad Stevens was very impressed by SLU. "They're a legitimate contender to win the whole thing," Stevens said after the game. "I believe that wholeheartedly."

What I saw Saturday certainly backs up that assessment. Crews' team boasts the best defense in the A-10, and proved it against the Bulldogs, holding Stevens' squad to 56 points in a 70-possession game. "They are men," BU's coach marveled afterward.

One of those "men" is Dwayne Evans, he of the 24-point, 11-rebound double-double against the Bulldogs. Start saying Evans' name now, and chances are you will look very smart in a couple weeks. The 6-5 junior plays in a balanced offense for an A-10 team, so his isn't what you'd call a household name. All Evans has is the ability to go off against a higher-seeded major-conference opponent in the very near future. You heard it here first.

In the first meeting between Saint Louis and VCU, the Billikens played on their home court and refused to be drawn into any kind of Havoc, committing just eight turnovers in a 56-possession game. SLU won that game easily 76-62. After the semifinal at Barclays, I asked Smart about that earlier game and what his team needs to do to beat the Billikens. "Play better," he told me.

What his answer might have lacked in length, it more than made up for in accuracy. Smart's exactly right. VCU's "normal" game won't be enough against Saint Louis in the A-10 finals. And most teams' "normal" games likely won't be enough against either the Rams or the Billikens in the NCAA tournament. Field of 66 other teams, you've been warned. The A-10's big two are very good at what they do.
Another wacky week in the Atlantic 10, another mostly futile attempt to place the lion's share of these teams in something resembling a hierarchy. Let's give it a less wordy shot:

1. Virginia Commonwealth. For most of the nonconference season, VCU was an elite defensive team. Shaka Smart's constant pressure system worked: It forced opponents into the highest turnover rate in the country -- a distinction it still maintains; Rams opponents cough it up on 29.3 percent of their possessions -- while VCU's all-men-on-deck combination of lightning-quick guards (Treveon Graham, Darius Theus, Briante Weber, Troy Daniels, Rob Brandenberg) constituted one of the most exciting watches in the sport.

But a weird thing happened on the way to the Atlantic 10: VCU's defense got mediocre. The Rams still force a ton of turnovers, of course, but when they don't force turnovers, they don't get stops. VCU's league opponents make 38.0 percent of their 3-pointers and 50.2 percent of their 2s, and have averaged 1.01 points per trip, making VCU's defense the seventh-best in the league. Another weird thing happened: VCU's offense took off. Through nine games, the Rams have the best per-possession offense in the A-10. Talk about a reversal of fortune.

Why put them back at No. 1 this week? Because I think VCU's defense will come back. And if it does, and this offensive pace continues, the Rams will be as dangerous as any team in the country.

Also, Thursday night Juvonte Reddic did this. So you know.

2. Butler. If power rankings are a balance between a team's long-view work to date and an evaluation of its current performance, you could still make the argument that Butler is the best team in the Atlantic 10. After all, no one else can lay claim to a win as good as Indiana, not to mention Gonzaga at home. (Marquette in Maui wasn't too bad, either). But the Bulldogs, it should be noted, entered Wednesday night's home date against Charlotte with a conference efficiency margin of only 0.08 points per possession, tied with La Salle and George Washington for fourth-best in the league. And then they lost to Charlotte at home. I'm not panicking just yet, nor should Butler fans; there is still much to recommend the Bulldogs. But it is not heresy to admit that Butler has struggled in the past two weeks, even as wins over Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and George Washington masked that fact.

3. Saint Louis. The Billikens, meanwhile, are headed in the opposite direction: Since back-to-back losses to Temple and Rhode Island on Jan. 12 and Jan. 19, St. Louis has won six in a row in mostly easy fashion, including a 73-58 victory over Butler. Its defense allows the fewest points per trip in the league (0.915), mostly because Saint Louis rarely allows offensive boards. But the schedule only gets tougher from here: versus Charlotte, versus VCU, at Butler, versus Saint Joseph's, at George Washington, at Xavier, versus La Salle. In other words: go time.

4. La Salle. Were it not for that baffling mid-November home loss to Central Connecticut, the Explorers might well be the subject of some national discussion. Because other than that, the rest of La Salle's losses (at Bucknell, Miami, Charlotte and Xavier, and a 61-60 home loss to Massachusetts) are completely forgivable. Saint Louis has been stifling on the defensive end in conference play, but La Salle is right there with its friends from the Midwest, and perhaps it's time non-A-10-heads sat up and took notice.

5. Massachusetts. OK, UMass fans: You win. I have officially decided to stop qualifying everything I write about the Minutemen with some version of "Well, their efficiency numbers haven't been very good, so the other shoe could drop any time now." It's not that I didn't like UMass, or something sinister like that; it just felt like fair warning. I'm done now. The bottom line is UMass is the fourth-fastest team in the country -- in this hyper-slow modern college basketball landscape, this is something we should be praising in and of itself -- and that pace, aided by the speed of point guard Chaz Williams, allowed the Minutemen to post the A-10's second-ranked efficiency offense performance and fourth-ranked defense prior to Thursday night's game at VCU. The Minutemen were blown out in that game, but that'll happen at VCU. Either way, it's time to start taking Derek Kellogg's team seriously.

6. Charlotte. On Wednesday night, Charlotte won 71-67 at Butler. I reacted to this in some detail Thursday, so instead of repeating myself, I'll merely send you there.

7. Xavier. For a young team that struggled so much in the nonconference, Xavier sure seems to be headed in the right direction now. Maybe that was bound to happen. Maybe it's a product of the Musketeers' backloaded schedule. All three of Xavier's league losses came on the road; its only real quality A-10 win (La Salle) came at home. The Musketeers go to Dayton on Saturday, and then Rhode Island next week. Those will be tests, sure, but it gets really gully starting Feb. 23, when Xavier closes with -- get this -- VCU, Memphis, UMass, St. Louis and Butler. This is going to be really interesting.

8. George Washington. As mentioned above, the Colonials' league efficiency margin of 0.08 points per trip was, before Wednesday's games, tied for the fourth-best in the league. George Washington hasn't played since. The ceiling is pretty limited here, but Mike Lonergan's team plays defense, and that makes it a very tough out.

9. Temple. More like TempLOL, am I right? No? Come on, Owls fans. Now might not feel like the time to joke, but I find the hoary old chestnut holds true: "Laughter is the best medicine … for getting over an 84-83 home loss to Duquesne." That actually happened Thursday night; that's a real thing. And it's a perfect summation of this insanely unpredictable, defense-averse Temple team, a team that can now say it beat Syracuse in Madison Square Garden and lost to Duquesne at home. Your guess is as good as mine.

10. Saint Joseph's. Fun game in Philly this weekend, when Saint Joe's meets La Salle in another Big 5 matchup. At this point, city pride is starting to feel like the best possible outcome for Saint Joe's. It's a really disappointing team.

11. Dayton. In December, back when we thought Alabama was a top-four SEC team, Dayton's victory in Tuscaloosa seemed to foretell another unpredictable, up-and-down Dayton season. Now it just looks like the latter.

12. Richmond. The Spiders have been racked by injuries, which is a good explanation for why an offense that played so well on a per-possession basis in the nonconference season has been the A-10's 12th-best to date. The Spiders have struggled on defense all season; without scoring, they're having a tough time.

13. St. Bonaventure. When they beat Temple and Saint Joe's on the road in late January, the Bonnies seemed to be on the rise. But they've fallen back below .500 since and, despite a valiant effort in a three-point home OT loss to La Salle on Wednesday, are clearly in a rebuilding stage.

14. Rhode Island. Between a road win at Saint Louis -- still can't figure that one out -- and Wednesday's 75-72 home victory over Dayton, Rhode Island lost six consecutive games. And you know what? It was all positive stuff. Remember, this is a team with a first-year head coach that won seven games in 2011-12. Five of the losses in the recent skid came by single digits. The Rams are playing people tough. It's a weekly refrain in this space, but it's true.

15. Duquesne. Duquesne! Huge win over Temple on Thursday night, not for any tangible reason -- it's not as though Duquesne is on the bubble -- but for sheer morale. It's not easy to play in a league like this when you're overmatched, and you had better believe knocking off one of the league's annual contenders in its final season in the league, in its own building, had to be incredibly satisfying.

16. Fordham. Fordham, unfortunately, has had no such fun. Its only two league wins have come over Rhode Island and Duquesne; it has lost its past five games; and on Saturday, Butler comes to town. Ouch.

Rapid Reaction: Duke 67, VCU 58

November, 23, 2012
11/23/12
9:35
PM ET
NASSAU, Bahamas -- A few quick thoughts from Duke’s 67-58 victory over Virginia Commonwealth in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament:

Overview: Two weeks into the 2012-13 campaign, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski already has his squad in midseason -- or dare we say late-season -- form.

Mason Plumlee scored 17 points and Seth Curry added 15 to propel the No. 5 Blue Devils into the championship game of the nation’s toughest tournament. Duke entered the Battle 4 Atlantis touting a victory over then-No. 3 Kentucky. But Friday’s win against VCU might have been even more impressive.

Most teams have more than one day to prepare for the Rams’ full-court, pressure defense. It’s tough to simulate in practice and it’s a style that teams rarely face at any other point in the season.

Duke, however, hardly seem fazed, as Krzyzewski’s squad committed just eight turnovers. The Blue Devils took a 17-15 lead on Rasheed Sulaimon’s layup midway through the first half and never trailed again. Duke led by as many as 12 points in the second half.

That’s not to say VCU didn’t have its chances.

The Rams pulled within four points, 54-50, with more than nine minutes remaining. But they went through a stretch in which they missed seven consecutive free throws, including two that came on the front end of one-and-one opportunities.

The physicality of the game made it tough on the offensive end for both teams. At one point in the second half the schools combined for one field goal during an eight-minute stretch -- and that came on a putback of a missed VCU layup.

Duke improved to 5-0. VCU fell to 3-2.

Turning point: Quinn Cook’s layup with 8:13 remaining extended Duke’s four-point lead to six, 56-50. VCU’s Darius Theus missed a pair of foul shots a few minutes later and the Blue Devils capitalized with a pair of foul shots by Seth Curry that made it 58-50 with 4:58 left. VCU never mounted a serious threat after that.

Star of the game: Plumlee was a beast on both ends of the court for the Blue Devils. He grabbed 10 rebounds to go along with his 17 points. He was credited with only one block but also altered a slew of shots. Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham each scored 16 points for VCU.

Key stat: One night after going 13-for-22 from 3-point range in a victory over Memphis, VCU connected on just four of its 20 shots from beyond the arc Friday. VCU shot just 32.8 percent overall.

Miscellaneous: Curry has a chronic leg injury that often makes it difficult for him to play two days in a row. The senior toughed it out Friday, though, playing 31 minutes to get those 15 points.

Up next: Duke advances to play Louisville in Saturday’s title game. Tipoff is at 9:30 p.m. ET. VCU will take on Missouri in the third-place game at 7.
1. San Diego State averted a major scheduling crisis when it was announced its marquee matchup against Syracuse on Nov. 9 aboard the USS Midway was on after a San Diego Union-Tribune report said the game was in question. The Aztecs do have a challenging schedule with games at USC and against UCLA at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim. And the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu could pit SDSU against possible bubble Ole Miss and projected Pac-12 champ Arizona. But the Syracuse game was the game on the schedule and in San Diego, even if it’s not at Viejas Arena. Colorado State proved last season that a team can get into the NCAAs by how well it plays at home in the Mountain West without high-profile non-conference wins. The Aztecs can’t rely solely on the MWC. The Syracuse game will be a huge boost to SDSU’s power rating win or lose. This also has a chance to be one of the more intriguing non-conference games in the first two weeks of the season. Losing it would have hurt the Aztecs (more than the Orange who will have plenty of RPI pop in the Big East) and taken a bit of bang out of the opening weekend.

2. Dayton coach Archie Miller coached against Xavier and Mark Lyons last season and is anticipating that his brother, Arizona coach Sean Miller, is getting quite an impact player. “He’s a winner,’’ said Miller of the Xavier transfer who is eligible immediately. “He’s a nasty competitor. They’re getting a first-team all-conference, Pac-12 player. He’ll be one of the best guards in the conference. He’s got a chance to be a 15-points or more a game player. It was a dramatic change once he arrived. He was a nightmare to prepare for at Xavier. Lucky (Sean Miller).’’

3. If you’re looking for a sleeper on VCU's squad then check out Treveon Graham. VCU coach Shaka Smart said he’s ready to increase his production after a seven-point a game effort last season. The Rams need a bit more scoring pop with the departure of Bradford Burgess. The Rams are down on numbers after two freshmen, Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess, weren’t cleared to play.

Duke's Kelly among players under the radar

January, 20, 2012
1/20/12
4:16
AM ET
Duke 91, Wake Forest 73
Duke's Ryan Kelly came off the bench to score 20 points, grab 10 rebounds and hand out four assists in the win. He's the first non-starter this season to reach those three levels in a game.

Washington State 81, Stanford 69
WSU's Faisal Aden poured in 33 points off the bench in the win, the most points in a game by a Big Six non-starter this season.

The Cougars shot 93.1 percent (27-29) from the free-throw line, the highest percentage by a Big Six team this season in a game with at least 25 free throw attempts.

Central Connecticut State 69, Bryant 51
CCSU's Malcolm McMillan handed out 10 assists without scoring a point in the win. Six players this season have had a scoreless, double-digit assist game; McMillan is the first to do it twice.

Vanderbilt 69, Alabama 59
Alabama's Tony Mitchell missed all eight of his field goal attempts en route to the first scoreless game of his career. The eight misses are tied for most by a Big Six player this season in a scoreless effort.

Oregon 65, USC 62
The Trojans managed only five assists on 25 made field goals. They are the third Big Six team this season to record five or fewer assists on 25 or more made baskets.

VCU 69, William & Mary 68
VCU's Treveon Graham missed all seven of his field goal attempts but went 10-for-12 from the line. He's the third bench player this season to score in double-figures without a made field goal.

Niagara 75, Canisius 56
Niagara guard Juan'ya Green recorded as many assists (11) as Canisius' entire team.

SPONSORED HEADLINES