NASSAU, Bahamas—On March 15, 2007, Virginia Commonwealth guard Eric Maynor sank a miraculous 15-foot jumpshot with five seconds left in the game to hand Duke a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. The No. 11-seeded Rams forced 17 turnovers in that game, including six by point guard Greg Paulus. They also shot the lights out from beyond the arc, with a 9-for-16 showing that overcame Duke’s superior shooting performance overall.
Yesterday, VCU showed that despite a new coach—one of the most heralded up-and-comers in college basketball—and seniors who were sophomores in high school when Maynor made history, the Ram formula for success has not changed.
In a 78-65 upset of No. 19 Memphis in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, head coach Shaka Smart’s team forced 22 turnovers, including seven by Tiger point guard Joe Jackson, who was flustered throughout the night by VCU’s high-pressure defense. The Rams drained 13-of-22 3-point attempts, despite being outshot by Memphis overall.
Sophomore Treveon Graham was the hero against Memphis with 26 points on 8-of-12 shooting, but fellow guards Darius Theus, Troy Daniels and Briante Weber are also dangerous from deep. Smart’s squad also showed a strong willingness to make the extra pass to find open shooters, racking up 17 assists on 26 field goals.
Point guards Theus and Weber are particularly effective distributors, and that duo also keys VCU’s hallmark “havoc” defense, which involves heavy man-to-man pressure all over the court. Smart makes no secret of the fact that his goal is to wear the other team down, and he was unafraid to rotate 10 players against Memphis to keep his side fresh. The Tigers were visibly fatigued at times, especially late in the game, as head coach Josh Pastner used a seven-man rotation.
“Both teams got tired,” Smart said after the game, “but we’re used to practicing that way and playing that way every day.”
The Blue Devils will lean heavily on Quinn Cook and other ball-handlers to beat the VCU press, in an effort to avoid the mid-court giveaways that often doomed Memphis. If Duke can get into its half-court offense, it can exploit a significant size advantage that it possesses over the Rams.
VCU’s only significant interior presence is 6-foot-9 junior Juvonte Reddic, who gives up significant size to Mason Plumlee, and Smart could be forced to turn to 7-foot center D.J. Haley—who played just 12 minutes and failed to score against Memphis—much more than usual. The Rams figure to have even less of an answer for a versatile big like Ryan Kelly.
“It’s as physical of a Duke team as I’ve seen since I’ve been following their program,” Smart said.
Duke’s conditioning will also be critical, unless head coach Mike Krzyzewski shows a willingness to be more liberal with his substitution patterns. Only seven Blue Devils played 10 minutes or more against Minnesota yesterday, and there will be residual fatigue from yesterday’s physical contest, especially for senior guard Seth Curry, who has battled a leg injury all season and was visibly walking gingerly at times against the Golden Gophers.
All of the Duke starters recorded double-digit points, but the bench added just two points total in its 44 combined minutes of actions.
It also may not favor the shallower Blue Devils that the arena is constructed in a ballroom at the Atlantis Paradise Resort. Krzyzewski noted yesterday that the temperature on the court in the Imperial Arena gets very high, and he warned of high potential for cramping.
But as VCU guard Rob Brandenberg reminded reporters after upsetting Memphis, “games aren’t played on paper,” and in an unpredictable early-season tournament setting, one thing is certain—the Rams will not back down from the No. 5 Blue Devils.
“You’re talking about arguably the best program in the nation and certainly, more than arguably, the best coach in the modern era,” Smart said. “But if I know these guys, they’re not going to fold up the tent.”