VCU shifts focus to clash with ODU after tough win over W&M

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After avoiding a slip-up, Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart told his players not to spend any time dwelling on Thursday’s unexpectedly tough overtime win over William and Mary.

Old Dominion comes to town Saturday night to renew the Colonial Athletic Association’s biggest feud, and Smart wanted his team in immediate ODU mode for a game that demands uncommon energy and passion.

“It’s two programs who have a history of going back and forth at one another,” Smart said. “For the fans, it’s become very, very heated. Probably the fans hate each other a lot more than the players or coaches. There’s a respect there certainly among our players and coaches for them and their program.”

There are a couple of subplots here — the usual bearing on the CAA race, whether VCU can emerge from a shooting funk — but a major one will be how some understudies and newcomers now in lead roles handle the fever-pitch atmosphere from the 13th consecutive sellout crowd at the Siegel Center.

VCU (14-5, 5-2) is trying to keep pace with league-leaders ODU (11-8, 6-1) and George Mason (14-5, 6-1), and three other teams that are 5-2. The Rams lost four mainstays from last year’s Final Four team.

ODU lost four mainstays from a team that won back-to-back CAA championships and lost in the first round of the last year’s NCAA tournament.

“The personnel has changed, but the systems have not changed very much,” Smart said. “Our preparation will be similar for what they do, and I’m sure for them what we do.

“For our freshmen, we’ll talk about it and show tape. There’s no substitute for being in the game.”

The Rams will have to solve ODU’s zone and keep the Monarchs from pounding them on the boards. ODU will have to deal with VCU’s pressure and limit the Rams’ run-and-gun spurts.

The zone is of particular concern because VCU’s shooting slump has dragged on for five games (33.9 percent). VCU has dropped to 40 percent for the season.

“We’ve all got confidence,” said Rams junior Darius Theus, whose spinning drive and lay-in with nine seconds left gave VCU a 69-68 win over the Tribe. “Offense will come.”

After a second-semester infusion of players and the healthier status of CAA preseason player of the year Kent Bazemore (offseason foot surgery), ODU has come around with four consecutive wins.

The Monarchs have had a penchant for falling behind and overtime games (3-2). Two of the Monarchs’ key players, senior forward Chris Cooper and senior guard Trian Iliadis, come off the bench for ODU coach Blaine Taylor.

“I had a call on a radio show a while back and somebody was talking about starters,” said Taylor, who during the summer shaved off his trademark mustache, which has been a frequent target for the Rams’ student section.

“I said, ‘Well, to be honest with you, starters, I think there’s way too much to it.’ We all have these smoke-and-mirror presentations. And I made the comment that I want enders. I don’t want starters. I want guys who can end games. That’s who I’m tuned into to get the job done down the stretch.”

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