By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team will play Saturday in front of a sellout crowd in Richmond, but that’s nothing new.
The sellout will be the Rams’ 53rd in a row at the 7,637-seat Siegel Center. This matchup, however, has generated more buzz than any of previous 52. That’s because VCU’s opponent is No. 7 Virginia, which will be the highest-ranked team to play at the Siegel Center.
VCU students began camping outside the arena Wednesday to assure themselves good seats for the 2 p.m. game, which, for fans not fortunate enough to secure tickets, can also be seen on ESPNU.
The Cavaliers (8-0) aren’t expecting a warm welcome in an arena where the Rams (5-2) have won 22 straight games.
“It’s going to be really crazy in there, but we’ve got to keep our composure,” UVa big man Anthony Gill said after practice Friday at John Paul Jones Arena.
Richmond will be the fourth city other than Charlottesville in which the Wahoos have played this season, along with Harrisonburg (JMU in the opener), Brooklyn, N.Y. (La Salle and Rutgers in the Barclays Center Classic), and College Park, Md. (Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge).
“We’ll have played more road games than home games after this game, so I think our guys have a familiarity with that,” associate head coach Ritchie McKay said.
“Now the challenge is the Siegel Center. It gets rocking and rolling in there. We’ll have to play our brand of basketball in order to have success, but again, we want to play in games that are meaningful.”
This one qualifies as such. Under head coach Shaka Smart, the Rams have become regulars in the NCAA tournament, and they knocked off Virginia at JPJ early last season.
“They just did a better job of executing down the stretch than we did,” McKay said.
Virginia led by six with 2:45 to play. But VCU fought back and won 59-56 on a contested 3-pointer by Treveon Graham — from about 25 feet — with 1.4 seconds left.
“I was shocked,” said Gill, who battled foul trouble throughout that game and watched the ending from the Cavaliers’ bench. “I was in disbelief, but I knew that we still had a lot of season left to play.”
Indeed, the setback proved temporary for UVa. The `Hoos went on to sweep the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and finished 30-7. VCU lost its opening game in the NCAA tourney.
The outcome of Saturday’s game, then, is unlikely to determine the fate of either team this season. But it could well be memorable.
“Obviously, they’re a heck of a program,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said of his friend Smart’s Rams. “[The Siegel Center is] a heck of an environment. We’ve never played there, but I know it’s going to make us better, and you’ll have to come ready.
“Every game we play there’s a lot of interest, and of course when it’s a rival or an in-state rival or a top team that’s had such success, there’s tremendous excitement with that. That’ll be a hot ticket and a very charged atmosphere.”
This is the Cavaliers’ sixth season under Bennett, whose trademark is the Pack-Line man-to-man defense devised by his father, Dick. Virginia hasn’t given up more than 65 points this season and ranks second nationally in scoring defense (46.3 ppg) and fourth in field-goal percentage defense (31.1). The Cavaliers have also dominated on the glass, with an average rebounding margin of plus-14.5.
Smart’s system is known as Havoc, and the Rams look to run and press whenever possible. VCU, which has no starters taller than 6-6, averages 77.3 points and forces 12.3 turnovers per game.
“I think it helps having played Havoc before, but Havoc’s 10 points better in the Siegel Center,” said McKay, who prepared the scouting report on the Rams. “The good news for us is we have experienced guards and guys that have played in difficult venues in the [ACC] and elsewhere.”
The situation was different last season, when the Cavaliers met VCU in their second game. Virginia’s starter at shooting guard, Malcolm Brogdon, had redshirted in 2012-13 while recovering from foot surgery, and his rust was apparent that night at JPJ. UVa’s starting point guard, London Perrantes, was a freshman.
Brogdon and Perrantes each had four turnovers against the Rams at JPJ. As painful as the loss might have been, Perrantes said Thursday night, he was better for the experience.
“I don’t think we ever came across anything like that again throughout the rest of the season,” Perrantes said. “So I felt like that kind of helped me, playing against a team that tries to speed you up, so early in my career.
“I know they’re coming back with the same exact mentality. And to be able to have experience [against VCU’s press], hopefully it’ll help me and help the team this upcoming game.”
That Brogdon and Perrantes aren’t as likely to be rattled by the Rams’ pressure this season is a positive, McKay acknowledged.
“But it’s just not those two guards that you need in order to handle VCU. It’s really all five guys,” he said.
“For us, this will be a 40-minute game. It’ll be a battle of wills. We’ve got the ultimate respect for Shaka and his program, but we’re also trying to continue to build ours, and I think our guys are looking forward to challenges like Maryland was and like VCU will be.”
Virginia is coming off a hard-fought victory over the Terrapins. Beset by injuries to starters Justin Anderson (ankle) and Darion Atkins (back) and by foul trouble, the Cavaliers still prevailed 76-65 at the Xfinity Center, where boos rained down on them for most of the 40 minutes.
“I feel like we handled it well, especially last night in front of that hostile environment,” Perrantes said. “I think we knew coming in what we were going to get. [The Siegel Center] is going to be a different type of environment, but I feel like definitely playing that game [at Maryland] is going to help us Saturday.”
Brogdon, an All-ACC selection last season, led the Cavaliers with 18 points in College Park. Afterward, he was asked about the VCU game.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Brogdon said. “It might be crazier than it was here. I honestly think VCU might have a bigger chip on their shoulder [than Maryland did] against us.”
Whether the 6-6 Anderson, who’s averaging a team-high 15.1 points, or the 6-8 Atkins (5.9 rebounds per game) will play against VCU is expected to be a game-time decision. Either way, 6-5 freshman Marial Shayok figures to play a prominent role Saturday for Virginia.
Shayok is coming off his best performance as a Cavalier. In a career-high 26 minutes, he totaled nine points, five rebounds and four assists in College Park. His ball skills should be valuable Saturday.
“I feel like last year I kind of was thrown into it,” Perrantes said. “That was the second game for me. This year we have a lot more experience. Marial won’t have to take the ball up as much, but I feel like he’ll be ready. He’s definitely really poised, and he knows how to dribble the ball and make plays.”
Perrantes finished with seven assists and no turnovers against Maryland, but he attempted only one shot from the floor, a 3-pointer that missed. After shooting 43.7 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman, Perrantes has made only 5 of 16 (31.3 percent) this season.
He remains confident that he’ll break out of his slump soon. Until then, though, he’s not going to force shots. If that means taking only one shot, as he did against Maryland, so be it.
“As long as we’re winning, I’m not really worried,” Perrantes said. “If we were losing, it’d be a whole different story. But as long as we keep winning, I’m just going to do what I can to help the team … I’ve just got to do what I can to help us win, and hopefully the shots will fall.”