Duke opens NCAA play up with VCU, and while we don't know as much about VCU's team as we'd like, we do know a fair amount about VCU in general.First of all, it's the alma mater for Gerald Henderson's father, Gerald Sr., who had a wonderful career there, having seen his jersey retired.
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The school is located at the bottom of Richmond's Fan, one of the most fascinating urban areas in the south. The architecture is stunning in spots, and walking along Monument Avenue is like walking in Paris. The statue of Robert E. Lee is enormous and visible over the treetops from a long way away.
VCU is a commuter school, filled with students who are often older than is typical, and often very motivated. The buildings are somewhat bland, particularly given the interesting architecture around them, but the students are full of vitality and originality.
Given these things, there is a bit of a disconnect between athletics and the student body, although the Siegel Center, VCU's relatively new on-campus arena, may have changed that somewhat.
The athletic program in general is scrappy. They were an early adapter when it came to recruiting internationally, with the mens' and women's basketball programs, tennis, soccer, and other programs recruiting overseas with great vigor by the early '90s.
The basketball program is the main focus for VCU, and since Sonny Smith retired, they've really hired some great coaches. Mack McCarthy took over for Smith, Jeff Capel for McCarthy, and now Anthony Grant.
Grant came to VCU from Florida, where he learned his craft from Billy Donovan. He inherited Jeff Capel's players, and has turned in a superb year with them, having a 27-6 record after the CAA Tournament. They lost to Xavier, Toledo, Appalachian State, Hofstra, ODU, and Bradley, and they were in every game except maybe Old Dominion, where they lost, 79-63.
VCU has pretty athletic guards in B.A. Walker, Eric Maynor, Jesse Pellot-Rosa, and Jamal Shuler. Like a lot of mid-majors, VCU isn't huge inside: Will Fameni is 6-7, 240, Michael Anderson is 6-7 , 190, Calvin Roland is 6-10, 245 (but only gets 10.5 mpg), and Frank Ndongo is 6-7 and 215.
What they do have is experience, athleticism, and a knack for forcing turnovers, and as you know, if you can knock the ball loose, a relative lack of size doesn't matter if you what you mostly see is the back of someone's jersey.
For Duke, having struggled all season with turnovers, hanging on to the ball is absolutely vital. Grant, having learned from Donovan (and by extension Rick Pitino, since Donovan played for Pitino at P.C.), will certainly try to exploit that weakness.
One the one hand, it's a style he's learned and likely enjoys. On the other, it's a necessity for this team, which can stagnate offensively and which isn't big enough to force the issue inside.
But another way to compensate for a lack of size is to send everyone to the boards. Fameni is the best rebounder, but Grant has everyone hit the boards: the four guards mentioned above average 13.7 rpg.
Of course, when you send everyone to the boards, that leaves the back of the court relatively undefended, which could be good news for Gerald Henderson and DeMarcus Nelson and Jon Scheyer.
With most of a week off, Duke has had the chance to work on the things which broke down at the end of the season. You could point to defense, to passing, to turnovers, to poor spacing, to various other things, but if you want to sum it up, you can just put it down to poor communication, because it's at the heart of all those things.
In the good news department, as the team has struggled, Greg Paulus has been a real bright spot. His shooting has really been a huge asset, and his leadership is really beginning to shine. When people talk about him, they tend to say something like "yes, but," with the suggestion being that he is now doing some things well, "but..."
It's time to get a better understanding of who Greg Paulus is. He wasn't recruited because he's the best athlete in the class. He was recruited because he's a very good basketball player and a phenomenal leader. Even when he's struggled, he's worked at being a leader. Watch him talk to his teammates. Watch him take big shots and try to make big plays. A lot of people aren't sold on Greg, but we are. The kid is tough as hell. He's had injuries to overcome in his first two seasons, but you certainly can't fault his effort.
Late in the season, some players have fallen off, notably Dave McClure, Lance Thomas, and Jon Scheyer. You never know why for sure, but you hope to see them get their groove back.
The other area where Duke will have to work hard is in staying out of foul trouble. This has been a real issue in some games, and against a pressing team, it could be a major problem.
The other good news is that Gerald Henderson is back after his one-game suspension. Henderson was really coming on, and Duke needs his athleticism and his scoring.
VCU presents some real challenges for Duke, and is not a typical opening opponent. But if Duke can hang on to the ball, be effective offensively, stay out of foul trouble and communicate on the floor, they'll do okay.