What to expect: VCU opens Puerto Rico Tip-Off against FSU

#10 Virginia Commonwealth University meets Florida State in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Thursday night. One of the Rams’ premier non-conference battles, the game is filled with story lines.

  • What: VCU (3-0, 0-0) vs. Florida State Seminoles (3-0, 0-0)
  • Where: Puerto Rico
  • When: Thursday, November 21st at 7:30 PM
  • Watch: ESPNU

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The Rundown

#10 Virginia Commonwealth University meets Florida State in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Thursday night. One of the Rams’ premier non-conference battles, the game is filled with story lines. Here’s our first ever What to expect: pick your own angle.

The Rematch

Thursday is a rematch of what is quickly becoming known as the “HE BLOCKED IT!” game. VCU topped red-hot Florida State 73-72 in overtime in the 2011 Sweet Sixteen. With seven seconds remaining in overtime, Joey Rodriguez inbounded the ball to a wide open Bradford Burgess to take a one point lead. On the next possession, Rob Brandenberg blocked the Seminoles’ final shot, and VCU moved on to the Elite Eight to face top-seeded Kansas. Thanks to the greatest thing on the internet, the NCAA vault, the entire game can be watched online..

Five players from that memorable game are still playing college basketball. Okaro White started and scored two points but was limited by four fouls, and Ian Miller scored two points for FSU. Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg were valuable reserves for the Rams during that run. That leaves Terrance Shannon, the former Seminole turned Ram.

The Transfer

Despite only returning six players, VCU entered this season with high expectations. A huge reason for those expectations is the addition of Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon to the A-10’s best front-court of Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham.

While Shannon wants to downplay facing off with his old team, he still says, “it’s going to be bitter sweet.” VCU is hoping it’s more sweet than bitter, because Shannon’s 6-foot-8, 240-pound body is going to be essential in matching up with FSU’s size.

Shannon has only been playing 17.7 MPG, but a two-handed slam and an emphatic block could be nice catalysts for the types of runs that VCU uses to finish off teams like Florida State. And if it’s not too much to ask, another post-game quote about crushing teams with sledgehammers would be the cherry on top of an enjoyable Puerto Rican non-alcoholic beach drink.

The Tournament

Regardless of the outcome, when we get back here and get on the practice court, we need to get better. We’re going to need to improve. We’re going to need to make progress.Coach Smart

VCU is trying to start 4-0 for the first time since 1993-94. The Rams have had some incredibly talented teams in the past few seasons, but they have racked up some early season losses playing talented opponents in “exempt tournaments.”

Coach Smart is known for his success in March, but his teams would be shadows of their tournament forms if it weren’t for his ability to learn from exempt events. The past two seasons have been particularly good examples.

After losing so many pieces from the 2011 Final Four team, VCU travelled to Charleston where they lost by double-digits to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech before squeaking by Western Kentucky. The Rams responded by almost beating a ranked Alabama team in Tuscaloosa before winning 19 of their next 21 games. The 2011-12 Rams started the season by sneaking past SFPA. They ended it by winning the CAA Tournament, beating Wichita State, and then losing by two to Indiana in the 3rd round of the NCAA Tournament.

Last season, VCU beat an over-ranked Memphis team before losing to Duke and Missouri. The Rams responded by winning 13-straight games. The lessons learned in these tournaments and the November-to-March improvement Shaka Smart teams make is one of the biggest reasons VCU basketball is so enjoyable. It’s easy to forget that not every team improves, but the Rams’ resilience against regressing may be their most watchable asset.

The Puerto Rico Tip-Off offers plenty of potential lessons. Can speed trump the extreme length of FSU? Can VCU find revenge against Michigan, a team that beat them 78-53 in March? Can VCU beat Georgetown outside of March (where John Thompson III teams can’t seem to win)? Can VCU win three games in four days?

The Opposites

Florida State’s starting lineup has a full 18-inches on VCU. The Seminoles are the definition of length and size. They block/alter shots, they clean up the offensive glass, and they have two of the biggest centers in college basketball. But just because the pieces are big, doesn’t mean they have every piece to the puzzle. FSU ranks 333rd in offensive turnover percentage, and they have coughed up the ball on almost one in every four possessions against teams like Jacksonville, UCF, and Tennessee Martin.

After losing it last season, FSU has found it’s defensive mojo, but Florida State is a different team this year than those Leonard Hamilton teams that went to four-straight NCAA Tournaments between between 2009 and 2012. The Seminoles are still extremely physical and their length is almost unmatched nationally, but this year’s squad is capable of playing in transition. They will even occasionally use some full court pressure with one or two defenders.

What VCU lacks in size, they make up for with speed. Thursday will be like David and Goliath, except David enters the battle ranked 10th in the nation, and his sling is the peskiest pressure defense in college basketball. Guys like Rob Brandenberg and Melvin Johnson will be giving up some serious inches to FSU, but length is more valuable in the half-court which VCU will try to avoid by forcing turnovers and scoring in transition.

The Star: #10 Okaro White

16 PPG, 68% FG%, 6.3 RPG, 2 BPG, and 0.7 SPG

Calling Jordan Burgess. When the Rams play small ball, Freshman Jordan Burgess could be called upon to guard FSU’s do-it-all star. Burgess is the Rams’ most physical three. At 6-foot-8, 204 pounds, White is a talented small forward who can score, rebound, defend, and break the hearts of those tweeners not big enough to be a forward / not skilled enough to be a guard. Thankfully, Burgess is tough as nails, and FSU’s half-court possessions could be limited by 24.2% because of the Rams’ full-court pressure.

Supporting Cast

#1 Devon Bookert (PG, Sophomore, 6-foot-3, 204 lbs.) • Bookert is going to be busy on Thursday. He is one of FSU’s two ball-handlers, and he will be forced to beat traps while playing alongside players that aren’t exactly Tim Hardaway Jr. Bookert is deadly from range. He hit 32 of his 61 3-point attempts last season, and he is topping that by shooting .556 this season. While turnovers are an issue, the Anchorage, Alaska native is grabbing 3.3 steals per game. Limiting his open looks and protecting the basketball have to be priorities.

#32 Montay Brandon (SG, Sophomore, 6-foot-7, 216 lbs.) • FSU is starting a shooting guard that has two inches on VCU’s forward when the Rams play their most effective lineup (small ball). Brandon would be a great matchup for Treveon Graham (not fast enough, not strong enough, but who is?), but the Rams are going to have to rely on the speed and experience of guys like Rob Brandenberg.

#15 Boris Bojanovsky (C, Sophomore, 7-foot-3, 235 lbs.) • 6 and 7 are next to each other on the keyboard, but that’s no typo. Bojanovsky is the tallest player in FSU history, and his length is unlike anything VCU has seen. He’s extremely thin, and he won’t go to work in the post, but he can clean up the boards and alter/block shots. Oh, and Juvonte Reddic will give up a full six inches on the tip-off.

#50 Michael Ojo (C, Sophomore, 7-foot-1, 292 lbs.) • Leonard Hamilton will regularly switch between Ojo and Bojanovsky. In addition to crazy length, Ojo is the Seminoles’ strongest center. He isn’t polished offensively, but he is a monster rebounder, and he guards the paint.

#14 Robert Gilchrist (F, Senior, 6-foot-9, 220 pounds) • Gilchrist and White are FSU’s great strength. Not many teams have starting forwards with size and skill combinations like these two seniors. Gilchrist can play above the rim, and he is the kind of player that will set up behind the press and capitalize on home run passes.

#25 Aaron Thomas (G, Sophomore, 6-foot-5, 195 pounds) • Through three games, Thomas has the same number of steals as Briante Weber (12). In addition to being FSU’s best on-ball defender, Thomas is a good shooter, but he adds little in the ball-handling department.

#30 Ian Miller (G, Senior, 6-foot-3, 198 lbs.) • The Seminoles’ only other true ball-handler, Hamilton could put Miller next to Bookert to help beat the press, but then endurance and substitutions become issues. Miller is also a great shooter, and he’s shooting .889 from the charity stripe, .667 from 2-point range, and .462 from 3-point range.

The Prediction

VCU may have problems scoring against FSU in the half-court, but the Rams will have plenty of opportunities in transition because of turnovers. VCU should win and move on to a rematch against #14 Michigan. KenPom picks VCU to win 83-75 with a 76% chance of victory.

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Florida State Profile

  • Location: Tallahassee, FL
  • Enrollment: 40,474
  • Conference: ACC
  • All time series: VCU leads 1-0.
  • Last meeting: 3/25/2011. VCU won 72-71 in OT.

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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