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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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The goal that no one wanted: Alex Ovechkin gives up hat trick to set up T.J. Oshie

The goal that no one wanted: Alex Ovechkin gives up hat trick to set up T.J. Oshie

Alex Ovechkin had two goals, the puck on his stick and an empty-net yawning. The Caps held a 4-2 lead on Monday against the Vancouver Canucks late in the third period and the win looked all but secured. The only thing still up for grabs was the exclamation point empty-net goal.

Ovechkin took the puck in the defensive zone and weaved his way through the neutral zone. Once he hit center ice, there was only one player between him and the net. The hat trick looked all but certain…until he passed the puck away.

He easily could have taken the puck himself and fired it into the empty yet, but instead he chose to pass it off to T.J. Oshie on the wing.

Oshie delayed, but with the trailing Vancouver players skating into the passing lane, there was no way for Oshie to try to pass it back to Ovechkin and he very reluctantly shot the puck into the net.

When the players returned to the bench, the disappointment on Oshie’s face was clear to see. He wanted Ovechkin to get the hat trick, but Ovechkin wasn’t having it.

After the game, head coach Todd Reirden praised Ovechkin for his leadership.

“He could have easily got in the red and tried to score himself and it wasn’t even a thought,” Reirden said. “He passed right to Osh and Osh couldn’t go back to him and that’s the way it worked out. It doesn’t bother him one bit and I think that’s where you see a different player than maybe you saw three or four years ago that is not focused on individual stuff. He’s doing the right thing and he feels if you do the right thing for long enough, you’re going to get rewarded.

“We were benefactors of that last season with being able to win out at the end. He’s really got a lot of buy-in right now for doing the right thing. I think his leadership is really in the last probably year, year and a half has really gone to a new level.”
 
Reirden saw leadership on the play. Oshie saw disappointment.
 
Ovechkin offered his own explanation for giving up the shot as he said, “Save it for next time.”

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Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. show how they can change everything for Wizards in win over Blazers

Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. show how they can change everything for Wizards in win over Blazers

Most nights, with little variance, the Wizards know what they are going to get from John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. They are consistently what they are, both good and bad, and mostly good.

The same cannot always be said about Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. Both are capable of brilliance, it's just those moments come and go and sometimes with mysterious timing. Both players help the team more often than not, but can be unpredictable and enigmatic.

Monday night saw both Morris and Oubre at their best as the Wizards topped the Blazers 125-124 in overtime at the Moda Center. It was a worthy reminder of how much the two of them can change the outlook for the Wizards as a team on any given night.

Let's begin with Morris because this may have been the best game he's played with the Wizards since joining them in a Feb. 2016 trade. On both ends of the floor, he  was a force, but particularly on offense.

Morris erupted for 28 points in 25 minutes on 9-for-15 from the field and 6-for-10 from three. His six threes were a career-high. He also had 10 rebounds, a block and a steal.

It was the most efficient night in Morris' career and, by one measure, one of the most efficient in franchise history. His 28 points were the most by a Wizards or Bullets player in 25 minutes or less since A.J. English dropped 30 points in 23 minutes in 1990.

Morris' threes were well-timed. He hit two in the extra period, including one with 38.5 seconds remaining to put the Wizards up four. He also made one with 1:04 left in regulation and another right before that with 1:39 to go, both to give the Wizards a lead at the time. 

The clutch threes invoked memories of a game-winner Morris hit in the very same building two seasons ago. That also happened to be his best year with the Wizards.

Morris has improved his three-point shooting in recent years with a career-best 36.7 percent last season. When he's knocking them down, the Wizards can be uniquely good at spacing the floor, as Wall and especially Beal and Porter can be dangerous from three.

What Morris did against Portland was a major departure from a pair of uninspired games to begin the season. He had 21 points and 12 rebounds total in his first two games, both losses, as he failed to compensate for Dwight Howard's absence. On Monday, he stepped up and helped lead the Wizards to victory.

Like Morris, Oubre had been scuffling through two games. A different version of him showed up in Portland.

Oubre amassed only 17 points in his first two games and shot just 5-for-16 from the field and 1-for-7 from three. Against the Blazers, Oubre scored 22 points and shot 9-for-13 overall and 3-for-3 from long range.

Oubre added six rebounds, a block and a steal and a host of winning plays that didn't show up in traditional stats. He drew a loose ball foul on Mo Harkless early in the fourth quarter and took a charge on C.J. McCollum with under two minutes in overtime.

Oubre played pretty much exactly how head coach Scott Brooks often says he should. He ran the floor in transition and attacked the rim when the ball swung his way. He was more selective with his three-point attempts than usual. He wreaked havoc on defense with deflections, didn't gamble for steals and he hustled for rebounds. 

Monday night showed the perfect version of both Morris and Oubre. The Wizards need that to be the model for how they aspire to play every single night. If they do, this team's ceiling is significantly higher.

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