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.''


Follow Hank on twitter at:

Quick Links

Not everyone thinks the Redskins need to invest more at wide receiver

USA TODAY Sports Images

Not everyone thinks the Redskins need to invest more at wide receiver

While the rumors about the Redskins potentially trading for Marvin Jones from over the weekend were total nonsense, a reason they resonated so much with fans is because many believe Washington needs major help at wide receiver.

But during a segment of Monday's Redskins 100 show, analyst Trevor Matich assessed the position group and actually thinks that, as a whole, the team should be relatively pleased with the talent it has outside.

"I like it better than I have in recent years, especially if Paul Richardson stays healthy," Matich said.

His "especially" qualifier is a common one, and that's because Richardson is the most established wideout currently on the roster — and he still has just 1,564 career receiving yards to his name. However, a healthy Richardson (which the 'Skins never really saw in his first year, considering he got injured early in training camp and was never the same) provides Jay Gruden the field stretcher he loves to have.

Richardson isn't the only player Matich is anxious to see, though.

"Terry McLaurin, their draft choice from Ohio State, is legitimately a 4.3 guy," he said. "He gets deep down the field and catches the ball in space."

One of the biggest issues for the 2018 Redskins was a lack of speed at every single spot. In Richardson and McLaurin, the Burgundy and Gold now have a pair of pass catchers who can fly past corners, do damage 30-plus yards down the sideline and open things up for other targets as well.

Overall, in reacting to the Jones storyline, Matich really doesn't see a huge need for the organization to make any additions to that collection of pieces. 

"I think that when you take a look at all the other guys, Trey Quinn in the slot, things like that, this receiving corps is fine," he said. "It's not desperate. They don't need to invest resources to bring extra people in."

Now, is "fine" and "not desperate" the level the front office and coaches want their receivers to be? Of course not. But Matich's stance is intriguing, because he's content with who'll be lining up there while plenty of others absolutely don't see it that way and feel a trade would be prudent.

If you're in that second group, recent history indicates this is the dead zone for NFL deals. So try not to waste your time refreshing Twitter over and over and over.

Perhaps Washington gets to Richmond and, after a few weeks of practices and a couple of exhibition contests, realizes their depth chart could use another name. Or maybe an injury happens and forces their hand. But according to Matich, as of now, the offense can function with the parts it has in place.


Quick Links

After 15 years, Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, calls it a career

USA TODAY Sports Images

After 15 years, Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, calls it a career

Brooks Orpik wanted to wait. 
A few days after a brutal Game 7 Stanley Cup playoff loss was no time to decide if he was willing to continue his long, distinguished NHL career. It is one where he got to hoist the Stanley Cup twice, where he won an Olympic silver medal for the United States. A teammate to Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, a popular leader who could form relationships with the best player in the world or a teenage rookie.
Orpik’s remarkable career came to an end on Tuesday. He announced his retirement after 15 seasons. By the end, the minutes and hours and years on the ice had taken a toll. Orpik will be 39 next season. A right knee injury – a torn meniscus – limited him to just 53 games last season and even after he returned it was a grind to play to the level he expects of himself. 
"That'll probably be the main factor, yeah,” Orpik said on April 26 when asked if the knee injury would factor into his decision to come back. “I think from a hockey and competitive standpoint, I'll want to play. But if I can't get to a certain level then I don't want to do what I did this year throughout the whole season."
Orpik played in 1,035 NHL games over those 15 seasons, a first-round pick – No. 18 overall in 2000 – who more than lived up to expectations. He was a hard defender, a player who always gave as good as he got. No one on the Capitals was more diligent about taking care of themselves in all the ways that matters to an NHL player. He had to if he wanted to play long into his 30s. 
He had a flair for the dramatic even if contributing offensively wasn’t exactly his thing. He scored an overtime winner in the playoffs just this year in Game 2 of the Carolina series. He will always have the first game-winning goal in Capitals’ Stanley Cup Final history with the Game 2 winner last year against Vegas.
Orpik was often dinged late in his career by advanced metrics that said he didn’t contribute enough to shot suppression, that the game had passed him by as his skills eroded with age. His teammates were incredulous at those arguments. 
Said former Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, a teammate in Pittsburgh and Washington: “He has so much integrity. And that’s what I admire most, what a good friend and leader, a good quality person he is. And I think that means something to a hockey team.”
Said Tom Wilson: “It’s hard to put into words what a guy like that means to a team. I mean you guys see it but you don’t really see it. It’s everything that that guy does has been good for the team.”
Capitals GM Brian MacLellan: “[Orpik] been great for us over the five years. He's done everything and more that we thought we'd get out of him.”
Alex Ovechkin: “Batya was a great leader in our locker room and was so important for us to win our first Stanley Cup. We will miss his presence in the room and on the ice. Not only was he a great leader and a player, but he was a better person. I’m so happy I had a chance to play with him and for our young guys to have had the chance to learn from him. I want to wish him, Erin and his kids the best. We will miss him and the Batya protein shakes!” 
Nicklas Backstrom: “Brooks was one of the best leaders I’ve had the chance to play with in my career. It is difficult to find a better teammate, and a player who worked harder and enjoyed the game as much as Brooks. We all learned from Brooks and he made his teammates better every day. It was a pleasure playing with him and I wish him and his family all the best.” 

T.J. Oshie: “Brooks was a great player, leader, warrior and an Olympic Silver Medalist – the type of guy that would always stick up for his teammates, sacrifice his body and do whatever it takes to win. More importantly, he is a terrific person and a friend. Congrats, Batya, on a long and successful career!”

Wilson: “Brooks was someone that I looked up to from the first day that he got to D.C. I don’t think he ever took a shift off his entire career, nor did he ever take a day off being a great leader. Brooks is truly one of the best in the game of hockey and we will miss having him in our room. Congrats, Orps, and thanks for everything. I’m wishing you, Erin and the girls all the best in the next chapter.”

John Carlson: “I had the great opportunity to see up close how impactful Brooks was for our team. Spending time as his defensive partner and playing alongside Brooks was something that I will always cherish. He showed his teammates the importance of hard work, accountability and always being there for your team every time he stepped on the ice. We all learned from Brooks; he was our role model and he made us better. I wish him and his family all the best!”

They called his Batya, a winking acknowledgment from the team’s Russian contingent that Orpik was the team’s father-figure, its guiding conscience. Ovechkin is the captain. Orpik was the one guiding the leadership group in the right direction. Ovechkin was always going to hand the Cup to Nicklas Backstrom, his long-time teammate, when the Capitals finally won the Cup in Vegas in 2018. But who got the next handoff? It was Orpik, to the delight of his teammates. 
“You like to hear that from your teammates. I think being a good teammate is something that should be high on everybody's priority list,” Orpik said. “As you get older as a player you're not the same player you were when you were 27, so you gotta do things differently. I think when I was a younger player I had some really good older teammates and I had some other older teammates that I didn't really love. I think getting a taste of that, as you get older you reflect on that, and you're like, 'I hope guys view me in the same light that I viewed some of these guys, not the way I was treated by some of these other guys.'”
Orpik won an NCAA championship at Boston College. He played at World Juniors in 2000 and the IIHF World Championships in 2006. He represented the United States at the Winter Olympics in 2010, when he returned home from Vancouver with a silver medal, and 2014 and again in 2014. 
In 2016, in the middle of a playoff series against the Penguins, his old team, a late hit against Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta led to a three-game suspension at the worst possible time. Orpik stood up and took responsibility. He even said he hoped other players would learn from his suspension. He called it “fair.” That’s not a common reaction from an NHL player suspended in the playoffs. It’s part of who Brooks Orpik was, though.
He was brought to Washington to help change the culture of a team that could never seem to get over the hump in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Capitals gave him a five-year contract. After three more devastating playoff losses to the New York Rangers and then the Pittsburgh Penguins, his old team, the Capitals finally broke through last year with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.   
That remarkable career has come to an end now. Orpik said he assumed he’d want to play as the summer went on and return for a 16thseason. In the end, his body wouldn’t let that happen. He didn’t want to go through the things he had to play another full season and contribute the way he always has.
And so he will move on. First comes finishing that degree at Boston College. Then maybe a career in coaching. Who knows? 
“I’ve been extremely lucky to have the best job in the world for many years, but my body is telling me it is time to move on to something new,” said Orpik in a statement on Tuesday. “I’m excited for more family time and to experience a lot of the things that being a professional athlete forces you to miss out on. Thank you to the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for giving me the opportunity to play against the best athletes in the world. I’ll be forever grateful for the memories and relationships that hockey has given me.”