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Before the season began, VCU senior guard/forward Bradford Burgess, a member of 2010's All-Southwest region squad in the NCAAs, knew what would be expected of him. He put immense pressure on himself to lead a young Rams team, just a season after the program's first Final Four appearance.
Last season was obviously a special one for the 6-3 Rams, who've won their past three games. But they're not Butler.
The Bulldogs reached their second consecutive national title game last season, thanks to the feats of key veterans who came back after the 2009-10 Final Four appearance. But VCU lost a senior class that had won more than 100 games.
So as the most experienced veteran and the only senior on the roster, Burgess felt like he had to be flawless.
|Bradford Burgess (No. 20) is providing much-needed leadership for a young VCU squad.|
In the team's first game of the season on Nov. 11, he was simply flawed. He missed all 12 of his field goal attempts in a 63-57 victory over St. Francis (Pa.) and scored just two points. An ankle injury hadn't helped.
"It was just me pressing the issue because I was worried about how I would play, I was worried about how my ankle would hold up," he told ESPN.com. "I was just worried about other things than just leading the team and playing basketball."
The negative body language that was an issue for Burgess during his sophomore season had returned. He was rapidly losing confidence, and it was only the first week of the season.
His coaches staged an intervention after the team's second game of the season, a 69-54 loss to Seton Hall on Nov. 17. They told him that they weren't seeing him having fun anymore and that he didn't have the "bounce" they wanted to see.
"They wanted me to get back to my old self," Burgess said. "Ever since we had that talk, I just settled down. And we've just been out there having fun ever since."
Burgess scored 14 points in a 73-51 win over crosstown rival Richmond on Friday. He's averaging 14.1 points per game and shooting 80 percent from the free throw line. The CAA looks like a wide-open league again this season. And Burgess will be a vital component in VCU's plans to compete for the league's title and return to the NCAA tournament.
The Rams are back to playing the hectic style of defense that fueled their run to Houston last season. They have the third-ranked scoring defense (59.7 points per game) in the CAA.
VCU is trying to build off last season's success while also establishing a new identity, and Burgess is a crucial piece of that process. Rams coach Shaka Smart called Burgess "the main bridge from last year to this year."
"To have him back off of a team that went to the Final Four is very important for us," Smart told ESPN.com. "Even his role is changing because now he's the unquestioned leader of the team. He's the only senior, and he's the guy that everyone is looking upon to make a play."
And that's OK with Burgess.
He said he's learning that he doesn't have to be Mr. Everything, necessarily, every night. Instead, he's focused on contributing even when he's not hitting shots.
"I'm the lone senior. I have to provide that leadership at all times even when things aren't going well," he said. "If I, say, have another 0-for-12 night, I still can keep my team in the right direction and affect the game in other ways with my leadership. I can go out and get 10 or 12 rebounds or something. Just any way to affect the game and keep my head up when things are going bad."
• Leon Powell (Southeast Missouri State) recorded 26 points and 19 rebounds in an 88-72 loss at Central Arkansas Dec. 5. He followed that up with 21 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks against University of Missouri-Kansas City at home Saturday. But the Redhawks also lost that game, 74-69.
• Walt Lemon (Bradley) finished with 24 points and seven steals in a 79-68 victory over Northeastern this past Tuesday. He also had five assists and went 8-for-10 from the charity stripe.
• Eli Holman (Detroit): In his first game of the season -- he had been on a leave of absence since September -- Holman scored 21 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots during Detroit's 92-81 victory over Western Michigan on Thursday. He struggled, however, during a 62-54 loss to No. 15 Alabama on Sunday, finishing with nine points and nine rebounds while shooting 3-for-8 from the field.
• Alex Young (IUPUI) scored a team record 43 points during an 84-76 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday. He went 14-for-20 from the field and missed just one of his 13 free throw attempts. He also had nine rebounds and three steals. Rumor has it he also washed the team's laundry and picked up the tab at dinner that night.
• Josh Terry (Austin Peay) scored 20 points and shot 6-for-10 from the field in a 74-70 win at Tennessee on Saturday. He added six rebounds, five assists and four steals. Earlier in the week, he had 22 points in a 86-82 win over Arkansas State.
|In their first game as a ranked team, Kyle Casey and Harvard hung with UConn for a half last Thursday.|
Detroit 69, St. John's 63 (Monday): Detroit unveiled Dick Vitale Court. And then the home team, which Vitale coached from 1973-77, pulled off a win over the young Big East opponent. Ray McCallum, Jr. scored 21 points, and Chase Simon added 20 in the victory.
Milwaukee 87, DePaul 76 (Monday): Monday was a good day for the Horizon League, as the Panthers also defeated a Big East opponent. Kaylon Williams scored 21 points, and Tony Meier contributed 20. Their week, however, didn't end on a good note after losing at Northern Iowa Saturday.
No. 9 Connecticut 67, No. 24 Harvard 53 (Thursday): The Crimson had a tough task, facing the Huskies in the Ivy League program's first-ever matchup as a ranked squad. The Crimson went 7-for-21 from the 3-point line, and Kyle Casey (12 points) was the team's only double-figure scorer in the loss. But UConn only had a two-point lead at halftime.
VCU 73, Richmond 51 (Friday): The Rams topped their crosstown rivals, as Rob Brandenberg and Burgess scored 14 points apiece. It was VCU's third win in a row. The Rams committed seven turnovers but forced 16.
Austin Peay 74, Tennessee 70 (Saturday): The Governors' season started with nine consecutive losses. And then the Ohio Valley squad scored its first victory of the season against Arkansas State in overtime (86-82) last week. Then, it traveled to Knoxville and defeated the Volunteers Saturday after losing the eight previous matchups. Terry scored 20 points and TyShwan Edmondson added 19.
Wisconsin versus Milwaukee (Tuesday): The Panthers will face the Badgers at Milwaukee's U.S. Cellular Arena. A win over the Badgers would be a major statement, and it would serve as a warning flare for the rest of the Horizon League.
Belmont at Middle Tennessee State (Tuesday): The last time these two teams faced off -- Nov. 20 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. -- Belmont needed double-overtime to secure the 87-84 victory.
Oral Roberts at Gonzaga (Thursday): The Golden Eagles look like Summit League contenders early, winning six of their past seven. They face a Gonzaga team that's dropped its past two games.
BYU at Baylor (Saturday): The Cougars entered the week riding a four-game winning streak. And Noah Hartsock is making folks at BYU say, "Jimmer who?" Well, not exactly. But his 17.3 points per game have made him the new BMOC.
Oral Roberts at Xavier (Sunday): Slow week, so ORU makes the list again. But this could be a huge week for the Summit League squad. One-for-two would be respectable for any team facing Gonzaga and Xavier in a four-day span. For Oral Roberts, it could also lead to an at-large bid in March.
Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN