Hope for the unexpected when VCU faces Duke

The Rams have a challenging road ahead of them at Madison Square Garden this weekend at the 2K Classic tournament. Here’s what to expect…spoiler: it might be the unexpected.

Photo by Will Weaver

Original — November 19, 2015

VCU travels to Madison Square Garden as part of the 2K Classic, a four team tournament benefitting Wounded Warrior Project, to face #5 Duke Friday night at 7:00 PM. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

On Sunday afternoon, VCU will play Wisconsin or Georgetown at 1:00 PM or 3:30 PM.

In 2011, Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams unexpectedly stormed through March and took the college basketball world by storm en route to the Final Four. Since then, the Rams’ style has been a national brand, and VCU hasn’t had the opportunity to sneak up on opponents like during their “giant-killer” days of old.

But last April, Shaka Smart moved to Austin. And while “HAVOC! still lives here,” things are a little different under Coach Will Wade. How different? We still don’t know! Wade has been keeping his cards close to his chest.


“Part of Friday was me. I ran one play the whole second half. I was trying to conserve some stuff. I didn’t press.” Coach Wade

There’s been plenty of talk of change in Richmond, but the simple truth is VCU has spent most of its first two games playing what I’d call a more “boring” brand of basketball in hopes of catching Duke’s young but talented roster off-guard with some unexpected plays.

Don’t let Duke’s 74-63 loss to #2 Kentucky on Tuesday deceive, VCU is going to need every advantage it can seize. The Blue Devils are coming off of a dominant national championship and boast arguably the greatest coach of all time–Mike Krzyzewski.

Duke lost three players to the NBA lottery but has reloaded with small forward Brandon Ingram, who 247 Composite ranks 2nd, 3rd-ranked point guard Derryck Thornton, 4th-ranked power forward Chase Jeter, and 5th-ranked shooting guard Luke Kennard.

They also return with shooting guard Grayson Allen (20 PPG), who dropped 16 points in 21 minutes in the national championship game but is still figuring out his role as a go-to scorer, and rebounding-machine Amile Jefferson (15.3 PPG/12.7 RPG).

In order to top #5 Duke’s talent, the Rams are going to need to do more than surprise the Blue Devils with a few surprise offensive sets and a change in defense. They are going to need one or two unexpected exceptional individual performances.

“A lot of our guys are unknowns…What better way to break out on a national scale than on national TV against Duke?” Coach Wade

Melvin Johnson, who is coming off of 24 points and 4 steals against Radford, will need to be great during his return to his home town. JeQuan Lewis is quickly turning into a complete player, and Doug Brooks, Michael Gilmore, Justin Tillman, and Korey Billbury are all guys who could step up on offense and be difference-makers.

The groundwork for a win exists, but VCU will need to excel in a few areas.

The Rams will need to continue finding open shooters in the corners for three-pointers. Fortunately, teams are shooting 44.2% from three-point range against Duke.

Offensive rebounding, turnovers, and fouls are recent focuses of Coach Wade. The Rams are +11 on the offensive glass and +13 on forcing turnovers, but have struggled to limit fouls where they are just -1. Some of that is the result of using more man-to-man defense in the first two games than they’ll use the rest of the season, but “the legendary Duke Deference” from referees, could add to the struggle. VCU likely won’t win if they can’t turn the charity stripe into an advantage.

VCU lost to Duke 67-58 during the 2012-13 season. In that game, 6-foot-10 forward Mason Plumlee spent of lot of time bringing the ball up the court. The unexpected tactic was surprisingly effective and Duke only turned the ball over 8 times. More importantly, the Blue Devils kept their composure and stayed true to their brand of basketball. As with most VCU upsets, the Rams’ pressure defense will not only need to force turnovers, but frustrate the opponent’s psyche and force them to play outside their typical style.

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On Sunday, VCU will face either Wisconsin or Georgetown.

Wisconsin Outlook

Wisconsin spoiled Kentucky’s 38-0 start last April before losing to Duke in the National Championship game. The Badgers lost first-round picks Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker to the NBA, but return talented forward Nigel Hayes who has an endearing obsession with stenographers, guard Bronson Koenig, and coach Bo Ryan who has never finished lower than fourth place in fifteen seasons in the Big Ten.

Georgetown Outlook

If VCU plays Georgetown, it could cause flashbacks to when the Rams and the Hoyas combined for 61 fouls in Puerto Rico in 2013. That season, the NCAA committed to calling more fouls to promote “freedom of movement”. The NCAA recently doubled-down on similar rules this season. The man to watch is senior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera who finished with 26 points including 5-of-6 3-point shooting against VCU in 2013. He doesn’t have as much help this season, but he’ll be tough to stop, especially with less contact allowed on defense under the new rules.

Before last weekend, both opponents looked a little more menacing and a little more opportune than now. On Friday, Wisconsin lost to Western Illinois and on Saturday, Radford topped Georgetown in double overtime. Still, both opponents would give VCU its second of five opportunities to beat “Power Five” schools while building an NCAA Tournament resume.

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VCU vs Radford (14)
Photo by Will Weaver

The 2K Class presents a perfect combination of the opportunities VCU never had before the Final Four and the chance to sneak up and force some unexpected results that they’ve lacked since. VCU will travel to the highest profile arena in the nation–Madison Square Garden–to play the reigning national champions. Some say college basketball isn’t exciting outside of March, but that’s going to be a tough case to make on Friday night.

“If you’re not excited to play in these games, go play intramurals over at Cary Street Gym…That’s why I came back to VCU. You want to play in these sorts of games, you want to be in these sorts of environments, and test yourself against the best.” ~Coach Wade

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Aaron Williams

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

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