The Crimson Tide basketball team will play its first marquee home game of the season tonight when the VCU Rams, a Final Four team last season, visit for a key non-conference tilt. The game is scheduled to tip off at 8:30 pm CST and will be televised nationally on ESPNU. As usual, we'll have a live game thread here at RBR for those who wish to comment and for those who need updates.
As even the most casual college basketball fans already know, the VCU Rams made one of the most improbable runs ever the the Final Four last season before falling to fellow mid-major Butler in the national semifinals. In his second season coaching the Rams following the departure of Anthony Grant to Alabama, Shaka Smart barely got his squad into the tournament. In fact, many believe they were the very last team in, and that Anthony Grant's Alabama was the very last team left out. If VCU fans wanted some payback over Alabama for taking away their beloved coach, that was probably the best payback they'll ever get, as VCU took the chance that Alabama so desperately wanted and made it count by winning five consecutive NCAA Tournament games in upset after upset.
As part of Grant's VCU contract, VCU fans are guaranteed to get two more direct chances at revenge. A clause in his contract stipulated that VCU would get a home and home with any school that signed Grant away within four years of his VCU contract being broken. Now, in Year 3 of Grant's tenure at Alabama, the Rams will pay a visit to Tuscaloosa and Coleman Coliseum, while in Year 4 the Tide will travel to Richmond to play VCU in their gym.
Fortunately for Anthony Grant personally--and for his current team's chances of victory--he won't have to face many of the players he recruited--and the ones who keyed that Final Four run--tonight in Tuscaloosa. Gone is the leading scorer, forward Jamie Skeen. Gone is the team's top shooter, guard Brandon Rozzell, a Grant recruit. Gone is point guard Joey Rodriguez, another Grant recruit. A fourth senior starter and yet another Grant recruit, guard Ed Nixon, is also gone. The cupboard isn't completely bare this season for Shaka Smart, but this will be something of a rebuilding year for what has become under Jeff Capel, Anthony Grant and now Smart, one of the best mid-major programs in all of college basketball.
The Rams still have some very good talent for a mid-major program, but universally they were expected to take a step back this season, although still expected to finish near the top of the Colonial Athletic Association conference, one of the top mid-major leagues in the country. They began the season with a closer-than-expected home win over lowly St. Francis before going 1-2 at the early-season Charleston Classic tournament, with losses to the Big East's Seton Hall and the ACC's Georgia Tech before finishing with a consolation win over Western Kentucky. In a strange scheduling twist, they then played Western Kentucky again on the road the very next week, and managed to win again to move to 3-2 overall.
The Rams are not surprisingly led this season by the one returning starter from last year's team: 6'6" senior wing player Bradford Burgess, who caught fire in last year's NCAA Tournament run and may have been the team's MVP for the tournament. Thus far this season he is leading the team with 11.2 points/game and is also near the team rebounding lead with 4.4/game. Burgess is also the only primary player left who played under Grant. While Burgess is the one big name returning from last year's team, the Rams have actually been quite balanced so far statistically, with a collection of returning players and newcomers stepping up to fill the team's roles.
After Burgess, a trio of returning guards have stepped up to fill out scoring roles, with each of the three more than doubling the minutes they played last year. Troy Daniels, a 6'4" junior guard, Rob Brandenberg, a 6'2" sophomore guard, and Darius Theus, a 6'3" junior guard, are all averaging near 10 points/game. 6'9" sophomore forward Juvonte Reddic has likewise stepped up from bench player to starter and has become the leader in the post, averaging 8.0 points/game and leading the team with 5.0 rebounds/game. 7'0" sophomore D.J. Haley provides a lot of minutes and size in the post as well. The only other player averaging double-figure minutes is 6'3" freshman guard Briante Weber, so like many teams Alabama has played, the Rams will feature a guard-heavy lineup.
While VCU's results haven't been overly impressive so far this year, they do match up well with Alabama in two key ways. First, their biggest strength offensively has been their offensive rebounding rate, which so far has been the biggest weakness for an otherwise elite Alabama defense. Meanwhile, VCU's biggest strength on defense has been their defensive tunrover rate, which ranks 8th nationally. Alabama's offense at times has had trouble protecting the ball, so this is sure to be a key area of concern for Anthony Grant tonight. That said, while VCU does a good job creating havoc on defense by forcing turnovers and gets scrappy points on the offensive end with second chances, they aren't very efficient at all on either end in half-court sets, ranking well below average in college basketball in both offensive and defensive effective field goal rates.
Having played in the Final Four last year after knocking off the likes of USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, VCU will not be intimidated by coming in and playing at Coleman Coliseum against a top-15 ranked Alabama team, even one that has won 23 straight games at home. That said, Alabama has a clear talent edge and while this scrappy team won't be intimidated and won't back down, it is a game Alabama should be able to win at home if the team takes care of the ball and plays as hard as we have come to expect under Anthony Grant.
One key question is whether or not leading scorer Tony Mitchell, who sprained his ankle in the blowout win over Alabama A&M on Wednesday night, will be available tonight and if so, how effective he will be. There has been no official word yet, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise either way. If he doesn't play, it will be especially key for players like Rodney Cooper, Levi Randolph and Charles Hankerson to pick up his slack on the boards, where he has been especially key for an undersized Alabama lineup.
There won't be any more Alabama football until (hopefully...surely) January 9th, so if you haven't already, go ahead and jump on the Alabama basketball bandwagon beginning tonight as the Tide defends its 23-game home winning streak against a Final Four team from last year. A few tickets are still available for the game, it will be televised nationally on ESPNU, and we'll have a game thread here at RBR for those who want to participate. Hop on for the ride, and as always, hope for the best tonight.