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VCU rolls into Top 25 for 1st time since 84-85

VCU rolls into Top 25 for 1st time since 84-85

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Coach Shaka Smart, VCU and the Rams' ``havoc'' style of play are back in the national spotlight.

This year's Rams have used the same intense defensive pressure that carried them to the 2011 Final Four to break into the Top 25 for the first time in 28 years.

The No. 22 Rams rode their 94-foot style of constant pressure to take out five schools from the major BCS conferences in their stunning postseason run two years ago. Now they've won 11 straight and are ranked for the first time since 1984-85.

The Rams (14-3, 2-0 Atlantic 10) host St. Joseph's, the league's preseason favorite, Thursday night.

The Hawks (9-5, 1-1) face a stiff test against the Rams' pressure, likely in front of another sellout crowd at the Siegel Center. Still, Smart's team also has its own new challenge to address.

``I can guarantee you when we play a ranked team, we use that as motivation. We use any attention they're getting as motivation, so we've got to understand that people are going to do that with us now,'' Smart said, putting the onus on his team to ignore the plaudits and remember how they got there.

``We have to make sure we're focused on what's going to bring us success moving forward,'' Smart said. ``For our guys, it's a test of their maturity and their focus and for us as a program. It's a test of how good can we be when everyone's watching and when there are a lot of people saying good things about us.''

It has been hard not to say good things about the Rams.

The winning streak began after a 3-point loss to No. 17 Missouri in the Bahamas. That loss followed a nine-point setback against No. 3 Duke a day earlier. Nine of the 11 victories have come by double digits, including a 73-54 blowout of Alabama.

With their constant defensive pressure, the Rams lead all Division 1 men's teams in steals, averaging 13.2 per game. Sophomore Briante Weber leads the nation with 3.59 per game; senior Darius Theus is 10th, averaging 2.69.

On offense, senior Troy Daniels in No. 1 in 3-pointers made per game, averaging 4.12.

Anthony Grant, who coached VCU for three seasons before leaving for Alabama, got a very warm welcome when he brought the Crimson Tide to the Siegel Center on Dec. 15 - at least until the game started.

After Alabama went ahead 2-0, VCU scored 26 of the next 31 points.

``With the intensity that they play (with) on the defensive end, they're as good as any team that we've seen,'' he said after his team committed 18 turnovers, 13 by halftime.

``They're awfully good,'' Grant said.

Like it did in the Final Four run, it's the Rams' defense that makes everything else go.

``You can see what we do on film, but it's different when you're out there playing against it. People are going to prepare for it, but you've still got to deal with that havoc,'' Theus said. ``... We want to get the other team tired, and we may be tired, too, but we want to push them to their limit.''

A master motivator, Smart used the Rams' much-criticized inclusion in the 2011 NCAA tournament field to help fuel their run to the Final Four, showing his team clips of so-called ``experts'' counting them out.

He now uses the banner marking that season to reinforce the identity that can get them back.

``That's the only time when we reference the Final Four,'' Smart said. ```Hey guys. This is what goes into winning and if we do what goes into winning.' Then I'll point at the banner and say, `That's what we can do.'''

It helps to have Theus and Daniels, who both played with that team, still around.

``I want that as bad as I want my last breath,'' Daniels said. ``Me and Darius talk about it every single day, but we have to focus on the A-10. We have to get through this, but it would be a great feeling.''

Theus averaged 15 minutes per game on that team, and Daniels 4.7 minutes.

``That year was very special, but it would mean a lot more if we could do it this year because our role is much bigger,'' Theus said. ``It would be amazing. Like Troy said, we talk about it all the time, just to get back to that Final Four. That was the best time of my life. I would love to get back there.''

Smart would, too. Perhaps as a reminder to his team what it takes to get there, or as a way to warn opponents of what is coming, their warmup jerseys all have the same word - HAVOC - on the back.

``You can describe our style of play in one word,'' Smart said. ``How many people can you say that about?

``That in and of itself doesn't win you the game, but it does help in recruiting, it helps with an identity and I think people like that. ... There's no question this is a style for hungry, aggressive, tough-minded guys with something to prove, and we're fortunate that we have some of those guys.''

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3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

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USA TODAY Sports

3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

Just about everything that could go wrong did for the Capitals on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Caps were coming off a strong 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but none of that carried over in the trip to Chicago. The Caps took on a Blackhawks team that had lost eight in a row, but Chicago quickly took control in the first period and never looked back.

Washington gave up 21 shots on goal in the first period and found themselves down 3-1. Things did not get much better from there as they gave up another three goals in the final four minutes of the second.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Jonathan Toews: Toews opened up the scoring in the first period with a quick shot from the corner that caught Braden Holtby by surprise. Later in the first, he recorded an assist as his pass sparked a breakout that led to Brandon Saad's deal that gave Chicago back the lead. The Caps tried to make a game of it in the second period, but Towes intercepted a pass from Brooks Orpik that led to a 2-on-0 with himself and Patrick Kane that Kane netted to give the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead and signaled to everyone that the rout was on. Saturday was only the second three-point night of the season for Toews.

2. Patrick Kane: Toews helped the Blackhawks take control early, but Kane helped provide the knockout punches in the second period. Toews' interception led to a 2-on-0 in the second period. Holtby made the initial save on Toews, but Kane was able to knock in the rebound for the goal. He also added an assist on Artem Anisimov's power play goal which extended Chicago's lead to 6-1.

3. Tom Wilson: Before this one got out of hand, it looked like Wilson had erased the tough start for the Caps as he deflected a shot from Matt Niskanen into the net to get Washington on the board. Saturday's tally was his third goal in two games and his 10th of the season, marking the first time in his career he has reached double digits in goals.

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4 reasons why the Caps lost to the Blackhawks

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USA TODAY Sports

4 reasons why the Caps lost to the Blackhawks

The Caps were outplayed in just about every facet of the game on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. It is hard to narrow it down to just a few reasons they ultimately lost this game, but here are the most glaring.

The first period

The opening 20 minutes of this game was, to be blunt, awful. The Caps managed only nine shots attempts, six of which went on net. Chicago, meanwhile, fired 21 shots on goal with 29 total shot attempts. Washington was held to 21 shots on goal or less six times this season, so to allow 21 to an opponent in 20 minutes is not a good start. Of course, you can’t allow that many shots and escape unscathed and Washington found themselves down 3-1 at the end of the first. The Caps were outskated and sloppy with the puck and thoroughly dominated by the Blackhawks.

A bad early goal

Chicago did not need any help scoring in this one. The first goal of the game came when Jonathan Toews just threw a quick shot from the corner on net that caught Braden Holtby off guard. Holtby allowed six goals on the night, but only two of them looked soft. It was an inauspicious start to the game and a save Holtby really needed to make.

Two breakaways in the second period

A breakaway represents a breakdown in the defense. When you give up two in a span of 1:10, including a 2-on-0, that means you're not having a good night. In the second period, Brooks Orpik tried a cross-ice pass that was easily picked off by Toews that launched a 2-on-0 with him and Patrick Kane. There may not be a worse tandem in hockey to give up a 2-on-0 against than that. Just about a minute later, Ryan Hartman weaved his way through the defense to spark his own breakaway. It wasn't a good pass that launched him or a bad line change. Hartman's feet were moving and the Caps' were not. As bad as the first period was, it looked as if the Caps had stopped the bleeding as the score remained 3-1 with less than four minutes remaining in the second which is in no way is an insurmountable deficit. In the remaining four minutes, Chicago extended its lead to 6-1.

Defense

Holtby allowed six goals in this game before he was replaced by Philipp Grubauer for the start of the third period. Of those six, only two were "soft" goals Holtby should have had. The other four were the result of poor defense. The breakaways were already described in detail above. The second goal of the game came when Orpik and Madison Bowey both challenge Brandon Saad as he drove into the Caps' zone, leaving Vinnie Hinostroza to go in on net unimpeded. When Saad got the pass to him, Holtby did well to stop the initial shot, but could not get the Saad rebound shot. In the closing seconds of the first period, Holtby stopped a Carl Dahlstrom shot, but the rebound went to a wide open Nick Schmaltz who had all the space he could want to shoot in the rebound. John Carlson finished the game with a minus-3, Orpik, Bowey and Christian Djoos were minus-2 and Matt Niskanen was a minus-1.