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March 17, 2007

It’s UCLA

Filed under: Basketball,NCAA Tourney,Opponent(s) — Chas @ 10:59 pm

The storyline everyone wants. From sportswriters, to the fans. Pitt-UCLA.

The Bruins had a 13 point lead with a little more than 5 minutes left, but nearly blew it. From 46-33 to 49-49 under a minute left. Still UCLA was able to get a score and force Indiana to make the big turnovers on inbound plays. UCLA won 54-49

Shame Sean Miller and Xavier couldn’t get the upset — not to mention OSU’s Greg Oden avoiding being called for a flagrant for shoving the Cage into the second row on that foul. It absolutely deflated the Musketeers in the OT.

Butler-Maryland was a lot of fun (and a Butler 62-59 win was nice) — seriously, does the ACC offer a special camp that teaches flopping — but thankfully it’s over and now just a little time before the VCU-Pitt tip.

5:55: I may be a little late on the liveblogging. I need to stick with the L-ville-TAMU game.

5:58: Not that it matters. The Pitt game is being shown locally in my area (meaning it’s blacked out for the PPV package) and they are sticking with L-ville.

6:54: Okay. Nice 41-26 at the half. Still, VCU has been a second half team. Especially Maynor. Graves has been tremendous in stopping him. Has him frustrated and pissed. That’s good.

The weakness of VCU is their defense and Pitt has taken advantage of it. Beautiful to see everyone scoring — no one in double digits.

If VCU goes on a run to start, I will be going silent. Hey it worked in the first half.

8:28: Survive and advance.

I’ll say this, VCU did it 3 straight games. I would call that a trend. Coming back from deeper and deeper deficits. George Mason, Duke and then Pitt.
As much as Pitt nearly lost it, VCU mounted a tremendous comeback and did everything right. Not just the tremendous defensive pressure and effort — but hitting those shots. There were a bunch of deep, hands in the face 3s and circus shots. That was impressive.

Now, Pitt seemed so close to wilting and breaking. After Fields missed 2 FTs at the end of regulation, they regrouped. They lost Kendall to fouling out and they still did it.  The team got the win in the OT. When momentum, the crowd and everything had turned against them.

What is important is that Pitt is in the Sweet 16.

Here’s a shock, I know. The big key for Pitt will be Aaron Gray. Gray was hoping for Duke to win so that he could make his Uncle Steve choose team or family.

”We had a short conversation,” Gray said Friday during an interview session. ”He said he was going to be here [today], and that he would love to see us play against his alma mater, but that’s he’s just real excited about our team and that he’s said all along that he’s more of a Pitt fan than a Duke fan.”

Uncle Steve can express his loyalty when Pitt (28-7) meets No. 11 VCU (28-6) in the West Regional second-round matchup today. Tipoff is scheduled for 5:50 p.m.

Aaron Gray, before the tournament, also expressed desire to play Duke. His father, Michael, also aspired for the matchup of one storied program in Duke going up against a Panthers team that’s bidding for its fourth appearance in the Sweet 16.

”It’s funny because my dad was he was sitting there hoping for Duke to win, but that at time same time it was so hard for him to cheer for Duke,” Gray said.

It’s always hard to root for Duke. The only exception might have been when they were playing UNLV in the early 90s.

In a brief, somber aside, Gray’s 2003 HS class got a little smaller at the beginning of the month. Yesterday, she was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

One of the guys who will be going at Gray will be Michael Anderson — getting a puff piece from his local paper.

His role, however, could well be altered tonight. Anderson might be asked to match up with Pitt center Aaron Gray, a 7-foot, 270-pound senior. VCU’s other primary post player, Wil Fameni, broke his nose Thursday night against Duke. He was fitted for a plastic face mask Friday, but his level of effectiveness is in doubt.

“If I have to guard Gray, I’ll just try to use my quickness to my advantage,” said Anderson, who has started every game this season for the Rams, averaging 6.4 points and 4.7 rebounds.

Using his girth is not an option. Anderson is all of 190 pounds – exactly the build that chased him out of his first love, football, and onto the basketball court in middle school.

Anderson is a decent player and chose VCU over Providence.

As for the game, well Orlando Antigua was responsible for scouting the Rams. As soon as VCU had beaten Duke, Gene Collier had noted that VCU’s win should not have been a huge shock. To many, it wasn’t. VCU was a popular upset pick.

Having said that, everyone locally is writing, yes VCU is the kind of team that gives Pitt trouble and is fully capable of beating them. Having said that, they continue by noting that if Pitt loses, it will be a disappointing thud to end the season.

The Pitt players concede that they really didn’t know much about VCU. No kidding. They do expect a familiar approach from the Rams.

If VCU has an advantage at guard, Pitt most certainly has an advantage at forward and center. The Rams’ tallest starter is 6 feet 7, and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon expects Grant to employ a similar game plan that Wright State coach Brad Brownell did — double down on Pitt 7-foot center Aaron Gray and make the guards knock down outside shots.

“VCU will do the same things as Wright State,” Dixon said. “We’ve done a very good job with it all year.”

If that happens, Pitt’s outside shooters must be able to make shots again. Gray only attempted six shots against Wright State as the Panthers relied on the guards, who made 10 of 21 attempts from behind the 3-point arc. Pitt is shooting 38 percent from 3-point range for the season.

What VCU has that Wright State doesn’t is speed and athleticism at the guard position to recover on a pass from the inside-out to get a hand up in the face of the shooters. I’d love to say I’m confident in the perimeter shooting for this game, but I just don’t know what Ramon, Fields and Graves will do. It has felt like a crapshoot the past month. They have to shoot it, but I just don’t know if they’ll go down.

Gray knows he will get a lot of attention. And that he has to do well.

This will shock everyone. VCU will try to speed the tempo up. Pitt will try to slow it down.

This blog on Richmond.com following VCU in Buffalo is worth reading after a couple beers.

You know, last year, the Bradley upset of Kansas was barely a blip with all of the spectacular first round upsets. I mean, there was anguish in Lawrence and jubilation in Peoria, but the individual story was lost. Why? Well, Kansas losing early for the second straight year kind of killed some of the “Cinderella” part to be more of “Kansas loses early, again.” Plus, the whole issue going into the tournament that week was did the MVC deserve all their bids and about how deserving mid-majors were of getting in? That made every upset part of a collective story and a lot less media attention directly on the teams. It was more of, they play some ball in the CAA and the MVC type thing. The focus on George Mason didn’t really begin until the following weekend when they got to to the Elite 8 and Final 4.
Fast forward a year, and there were no 5-12 upsets. In fact the only real upsets were VCU over Duke and Winthrop over ND. Considering Winthrop was underseeded and was a popular “upset” pick, that makes this one of the least exciting first rounds in years. (Useless factoid that may only interest me, in the NCAA books (PDF, pg. 64), they don’t consider 10-7 or 9-8 upsets legit upsets. They only count upsets if the seeding is 5 spots or more. That actually makes sense.)

That means all attention is on VCU. So there are tons of stories about the team. How they have a symbolic chain of unity. The school is selling lots of t-shirts and getting lots of attention.

Online orders, which typically come in a trickle, have come in torrents this week. When Gonzales signed on to his computer yesterday morning, he found more than a hundred new online orders waiting to be filled.

“We’ve shipped everywhere,” he said.

A T-shirt is in the works commemorating VCU’s win over Duke, but Gonzales said there are licensing agreements to be worked out before it can be printed. A Sweet 16 T-shirt is ready for the printer if VCU beats the University of Pittsburgh tonight.

Cynthia Schmidt, VCU’s marketing director, said sports Web logs have been bursting with comments about VCU’s victory over Duke. When one blogger this week likened VCU to a community college, VCU’s alumni and friends fired back with both barrels.

Schmidt has collected many of the comments, trying to edit out the four-letter words before passing them along to higher-ups.

Someone make sure to pass along to the Pitt locker room that VCU is already to print Sweet 16 T-shirts. The attention is also reflected on people looking for more info on VCU.

“The cool thing is, a lot of things are going on.” VCU is the state’s largest school and one of its most diverse, he said. It has the nation’s top public arts college, the top graduate advertising school, and a leading medical center, he added.

People will learn that, Jarrett says, when they visit the school or even its Web site.

That may already be happening. A VCU spokeswoman said yesterday that hits on the VCU Web site in March are up 26 percent over last March’s hits.

She added that between 8 and 9 p.m. Thursday, while the game was being played, the Web site had 212,000 page views. Between 9 and 10 p.m., which covered the last stages and post-game, the total was 548,000.

The academic side never likes to hear it, but big splashes in the athletic field does wonder for attention, money and applications. I mean, I know I was unaware that VCU was the biggest state school in Virginia (or is that biggest “commonwealth school?”).
The kid getting the most attention and is most deserved is Guard Eric Maynor.

Welcome to “Maynor Mania,” as one questioner coined it during yesterday’s press conference preceding the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Maynor’s ability to elevate himself when games are on the line has created this phenomenon. The latest in a string of such clutch performances came Thursday, when the 6-2, 165-pound sophomore point guard scored six points in the final 1:24 to lift VCU to a 79-77 victory over Duke.

Maynor capped the flurry with a 15-foot jumper with 1.8 seconds left, sending the Blue Devils packing and the 11th-seeded Rams into a second-round pairing with third-seeded Pittsburgh today at about 5:50 p.m.

“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” VCU coach Anthony Grant said of Maynor Mania. “I like the term.”

So, it falls to Pitt to be the Goliath in this game.

Reporters flocked to the VCU news conference yesterday and filled its locker room, wondering how many congratulatory text messages players and coaches had received (coach Anthony Grant estimated he’d received 80). They wanted sophomore point guard Eric Maynor to replay his game-winning shot and even came up with a cute, new phrase: Maynor Mania.

Third-seeded Pitt might as well have stayed at the hotel. About a third as many reporters attended its news conference. Even fewer went to the trouble of visiting its locker room.

It’s no secret. The Panthers will wear black hats tonight. This city has adopted VCU the way Pittsburgh adopted 15th-seeded Coppin State in a 1997 East Regional at the Civic Arena.

Most of the 18,000-plus fans on hand tonight and the majority of fans nationwide figure to be rooting hard against Pitt, even if a VCU win would screw up their brackets.

“That’s motivation for us,” said senior guard Antonio Graves, who will draw the assignment of guarding Maynor. “It puts a chip on our shoulder that we have to use. We have to match their intensity and play like we have nothing to lose, too.”

Senior center Aaron Gray doesn’t mind playing the villain’s role. He knows VCU has become a tournament darling and that people want Pitt to lose.

“Definitely, but I think the whole season people have wanted Pitt to lose,” Gray said. “I think people have kind of considered us overrated, ranked higher than we deserved. It’s nothing we’re not used to and nothing we can’t overcome.”

Hey, why not play the disrespect card at this point?

— Former Pitt hoops coach (1994-1999) Ralph Willard’s Holy Cross team wasn’t able to pull the 13 over 4 seed upset last night and lost to Southern Illinois 61-51. His Holy Cross team was also in the West Region to add to the Pitt connection. It’s down to Dixon and Howland as the best Pitt related guy in that part of the bracket.

— If there was any reason I wanted to play Duke before, after seeing this flop I’d want to play them and beat them so badly.

— Damn, those Dukies have broken an opponents nose in two of their last three games. First it was Tyler Hansbrough and now VCU’s Wil Fameni. He’ll be wearing a mask against Pitt which is an advantage for us. It seems to always take guys a few games to get used to wearing a big plastic guard over their face. If only it had happened to Eric Maynor…(Thanks to TMGPanther in the comments for the link.)

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