To recap, we’ve precapped:
1. Old Dominion
4. VCU (today)
5. James Madison (today)
11. William & Mary
We’ll start with the #4 team, VCU:
Blue Ribbon Open
LAST SEASON: 24-10 (.706)
CONFERENCE RECORD: 14-4 (1st)
STARTERS RETURNING: 4
HOMECOURT: Verizon Wireless Arena (7,500)
COACH: Shaka Smart (Kenyon College ‘99)
RECORD AT SCHOOL: First Season
CAREER RECORD: First Season
ASSISTANTS: Mike Rhoades, Will Wade, Mike Jones
TEAM WINS (last 5 yrs.): 19-19-28-24-24
RPI (last 5 yrs.): 77-80-42-54-51
2008-09 FINISH: Lost in NCAA First Round
Key for VCU: Roles—everybody has to have one, and for the first time in three years there is the opportunity to create your role. Point guard? Shooting guard? Rozzell, Nixon, and Gwynn have been in a sort of nether land as Eric Maynor hit specialty players. Now, they get an opportunity to “do their thing.”
It is a long list and it will be interesting for fans to see how these guys adapt and come together. How quickly they accomplish the blending is important. And because Jamie Skeen isn’t eligible until middle December, they will have to adjust in games as well—don’t take that lightly.
Guy You Think Is Important, and He Is: Shaka Smart. This guy is one of the most intelligent, most strategic, hardest-working people I’ve ever met. That includes outside of basketball. Exactly none of that means he can X and O worth a lick. Jeff Capel was the first coach to tell me there’s a huge difference between making a suggestion and making a decision. How Smart is able to ebb and flow with the in-game, tactical necessities is crucial. Too many games in this league come down to one possession affairs. Handing the ball to Eric Maynor and watching him create is no longer an option.
Guy Who Is Actually More Important: Jay Gavin. It’s like this: every time we talk about a team struggling offensively it seems the root cause is the lack of one guy that can just hit a shot to break a spell; or one guy that can get red hot and carry you; or one guy that can shoot so well the inside game opens up; one guy that buries a back-breaking three.
It’s like a giant web of success that encircles the gunner. Gavin hoisted 18,000 extra shots this summer. He needs to be all of that for this team. And based on multiple people I spoken with outside the VCU program, he can easily be that guy.
Guy Who Could Play On My Team: Bradford Burgess. Though he suffered through a horrid midseason offensive slump, the 6-4 Burgess didn’t allow that to affect any other facet of his game. Refreshingly mature for a freshman. Burgess shot 37-86 (43%) from three and earned the nickname Big Shot Brad for consistently hitting big shots at the end of games. Kid just gets it done, the prototypical “gamer.” Special captip to Kirill Pishchalnikov, who is my second favorite player in the conference behind Corny Vines.
Guy I’m Not Sold On: TJ Gwynn. He is immensely popular because he is the effort and guts guy and I appreciate that. But Gwynn is tremendously undersized for his skill set and is a “full burst for three minutes” kind of player.
Coach Seems To Like: Darius Theus.
Games I Will Not Miss: Oklahoma at VCU (11/21) brings Jeff Capel back to town, and of course both ODU games (2/6, 2/27). And the city rivalry game with Richmond should be a barnburner (12/12).
And your #5 James Madison Dukes:
Blue Ribbon Open
LAST SEASON: 21-15 (.583)
CONFERENCE RECORD: 9-9 (7th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 4
HOMECOURT: JMU Convocation Center (7,156)
COACH: Matt Brady (Siena ‘87)
RECORD AT SCHOOL: 21-15 (1 year)
CAREER RECORD: 94-65 (5 years)
ASSISTANTS: Rob O’Driscoll, Carlin Hartman, Corey Stitzel
TEAM WINS (last 5 yrs.): 6-5-7-13-21
RPI (last 5 yrs.): 305-295-300-215-192
2008-09 FINISH: Lost in CAA Quarterfinals
Key for James Madison: “Plays well with others.” The Dukes seem to be loaded with talented scorers, and there is a giant hole in terms of who becomes the first option. Lots of guys, including senior Pierre Curtis, can score. (Curtis averaged almost 15ppg over JMUs final five games.) The issue is not necessarily who will be option #1, but who will be #2 and so on. This also applies on defense, where players are going to have to be aware of situations and help (or not). Team defense is a key.
Stat I love but fits nowhere: JMUs top four returning free throw shooters all shot 83% or better last year.
Guy You Think Is Important, and He Is: Julius Wells. The CAA Freshman of the Year put up double figures in 23 games, including a 32-point torching of Hofstra. Wells hit three or more threes 13 times in his freshman season and was 78-213 (37%) overall. He’s also played on the baseline and can rebound. Just above this preview, in the VCU preview, we speak of Jay Gavin. Read all that and you have what Julius Wells has already become.
Guy Who Is Actually More Important: Denzel Bowles. The 6-10, 260-pound junior is eligible at the semester break and is projected to jump straight into the starting lineup. He provides Brady exactly what he needs to free up his shooters: a thumper that commands attention on the block. Bowles is a gifted scorer, but can also pass the ball well for a big man, and since he is never far from the basket can aid with offensive rebounding. The Dukes were dead last in the conference in offensive rebounds (9.8 per game).
Guy Who Could Play On My Team: Devon Moore. The kid did not back down for one second last year, including a memorable crankyfest with Eric Maynor. Love the way he plays—very aggressive but also with an uncanny ability to make the right decision. Moore played to his strengths all season, shooting 116-230 from the field (50.4%) but taking just 42 threes (making 12, for 29%). He could use a few cheeseburgers to help stave off injury, but he is a winner and an all conference player.
Guy I’m Not Sold On: See below. I want to see the kid play. Silver medal to Andrey Semenov, who we all hope is healthy.
Coach Seems To Like: Trevon Flores. Just listen to Brady: “He’s going to have an impact as a freshman. He’s a big time shooter with three point range and an outstanding passer. He’s a guy that can play defense well beyond the foul line and keep smaller players in front of him. He’s going to be a really good college basketball player.”
Games I Will Not Miss: JMU at Ohio State opens the friggin season on 11/12. Tone-setter, and I like their chances. Hosting Mason on 1/16–the Dukes may well be no worse than 4-2 going into this rivalry game, at home, with an opportunity to make a huge statement.