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VCU Counts On Veterans

February 22, 2008 Columns No Comments



Veteran Leaders A Key For VCU

by Phil Kasiecki

BOSTON – Anthony Grant is trying to get his team to understand what it takes to win at this time of the year. The VCU head coach has a young group, so that’s not entirely surprising. On Wednesday night, a couple of his veterans led the way as they have all season in their 66-62 win at Northeastern.

Although the Rams were picked to contend once again in the preseason, this team has seven freshmen and thus had a little question mark around them. Those seven newcomers are certainly a talented bunch and form a large part of this team’s play as a very active and athletic unit, but it’s been proven players like junior guard Eric Maynor and senior guard Jamal Shuler that have carried this team. Their value, as well as that of Shuler’s classmates Wil Fameni and Michael Anderson, will undoubtedly show more in the next few weeks.

“What we’ve got to learn to do down at the end of games is stay in the present and understand what the situation is and not take anything for granted,” said Grant. “I don’t know if it’s youth, immaturity – I don’t know what it is, but we’ve got to figure that out. We’ve got to start to do that if we’re going to have a chance to win down the home stretch here.”

The Rams were fresh off a tough 67-66 home loss to arch-rival Old Dominion on Saturday. That snapped a four-game winning streak, largely because the Monarchs were able to get past the Rams’ usually tough defense to shoot 47 percent from the field.

Saturday’s loss was their second one-point loss of the season, and they have also won a game by one. Georgia State, which is in a three-way tie at the bottom of the CAA, did what they’ve done to many teams in taking the Rams to the limit – a two-point VCU win in one game and an overtime win by the Rams in the other. The four-point Northeastern game just adds to what Grant is trying to get across to his team.

“I don’t think any team right now is one that teams could say, ‘I hope we can them first’,” said the second-year head coach. “Who wants to get who first?”

Grant noted that the win-loss record doesn’t tell the whole story, and he doesn’t have to look far for proof. He knows his team could easily have lost several of their games last season as well, when they went 16-2 in the CAA. The two close games against Georgia State aren’t an aberration, and Northeastern was fresh off a heart-breaking loss and has had another one this season. His team is talented, but they can’t just show up and win.

“My thing with our guys is just to understand the sense of urgency that we’ve got to have down the stretch just to close games out,” said Grant. “The truth of the matter is at this time of the year, you’re going to be in games like this probably all the way through. You’d love to be able to coast and not have to stay focused at the end of games, but we don’t have that luxury.”

You get the sense he has the same idea about closing out the season. With two games left and a two-game lead in the standings, the Rams just need one win to lock up their second straight outright regular season title and the top seed in the conference tournament. But they’re not about to relax if they clinch with a win next Wednesday over a hot UNC Wilmington team.

“We’ve got to win both of them,” said Maynor. “Coach Grant is going to keep us in that mindset that we can’t go out and lose, we can’t get comfortable.”

That’s one place where the veterans come in. Maynor is the best player in the conference and continues to show it, scoring 26 points on Wednesday with 13 coming at the foul line, where he had just one miss on the evening. The CAA leader in assists and its second-leading scorer, he makes the team go, and calling him their floor leader doesn’t seem like an appropriate description.

Shuler has grown into his role as a leader and key player. Previously a good complementary player, he not only gives them offense as their second-leading scorer (seventh in the CAA), but is also asked to guard the opponent’s best perimeter player on most nights. He’s a senior who continues to grow on a young team, and he surely didn’t hurt that on Wednesday night as he played a good number of his 36 minutes on a bad ankle. He was out there playing on it in the final seconds, where he made a clinching free throw to cap off an 11-point game on 4-4 shooting from the field.

“He’s extremely valuable to us and has had a great season,” Grant said of Shuler. “In my opinion, he’s got to be considered one of the top five performers in our league this season.”

“Jamal is a tough competitor,” said Maynor. “Even if he’s hurt, I know he’s going to be ready for Saturday. I told him, give me five more minutes and we’re headed on home. He gutted it out.”

The Rams have very good talent among their freshmen, from shot-blocking forward Larry Sanders to scoring guard Joey Rodriguez to Lance Kearse, who has shown promise in relatively limited minutes. Rodriguez was the only one who impressed much on Wednesday, and although he had 11 points, only one came in the second half. At this point, they’re very much a work in progress and have plenty of time to get better. Shuler, along with Anderson and Fameni, don’t have that luxury as seniors. Grant will count on them to help lead his young players understand what is at stake in the coming weeks.

“It’s there now where they can count them, they can see the end,” said Grant. “We’ve got to make sure that they give our younger guys a sense of urgency to make this thing last as long as we possibly can, and that starts day by day with how we prepare and how we play the games.”

     

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