- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

RICHMOND — It was an inevitable question given the circumstances.

Virginia Commonwealth and point guard Eric Maynor had just staged a phenomenal comeback to win the Colonial Athletic Association championship. In doing so, the Rams prevented George Mason from returning to the NCAA tournament, where the Patriots made their mark last season with one of the greatest runs in NCAA history as an unheralded mid-major programthat advanced to the Final Four.

So after the Rams won this year’s CAA tournament, they weren’t surprised by the query: Would they be the next George Mason?

“What Mason did last year was special,” said Anthony Grant, VCU’s first-year coach. “I don’t think anybody on our team is trying to duplicate or be what George Mason was. I think we are content being VCU, and we are going to make our own identity.”

The Rams, who coincidentally are a No. 11 seed just like George Mason was last season, will find out quickly whether they are upset material. VCU will meet three-time NCAA champion Duke in a first-round West Region matchup tonight in Buffalo, N.Y., and are a fashionable pick in the brackets. The Blue Devils are seeded sixth after a tumultuous regular season, which ended on a three-game losing streak.

Nonetheless, the Rams (27-6) will try to pull the type of shocker that propelled George Mason all the way to the national semifinals. The Patriots stunned two-time champion Michigan State in the first round last season.

And it’s not out of the question. The Rams set a CAA record for conference wins by going 16-2 and set a program record for victories overall. And they did it with a new coach and a new, frenetic pace: fullcourt pressure all game and an attacking offense.

Grant brought that style of play from Florida, where he was an assistant under Billy Donovan with the national champions last season. It was a complete change from the system of Jeff Capel, the current coach at Oklahoma who was more inclined to walk it up and run halfcourt sets.

“Our identity was really going to be established by our pressure, the tempo and basically forcing teams to play the way we want them to,” said Grant, who spent 10 seasons with Donovan, including two at Marshall. “I think our guys from Day One really embraced that.”

The 40-year-old coach, who rarely displays any emotion, found his catalyst in Maynor, a 6-foot-2 jitterbug at point guard. The slender sophomore has excellent vision and handle in the attacking offense and deceptive quickness and instincts that create steals for the Rams and havoc for opponents.

“Coach Grant and I understood each other from the day we met,” said Maynor, who averages 13.6 points, a CAA-best 6.3 assists and better than a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. “I felt like I was in good hands with him. He felt the same way.”

Maynor almost single-handedly won the CAA championship during the dramatic comeback against George Mason. The Patriots led by five with less than two minutes left when Maynor stole the ball at midcourt and converted a three-point play after a layup. He then timed Gabe Norwood’s crossover dribble perfectly in the backcourt, made the steal and tied the game with another layup.

Maynor, who was named tournament MVP, scored nine straight points in the run, giving VCU the lead after he got a defensive rebound and scored on another layup.

“I knew he had the will and determination to fight through when things got tough,” said Grant, who felt he could trust the young point guard to run the team after watching his work ethic in preseason conditioning drills. “I haven’t seen many like him in all my years of coaching in terms of the talent level and his will to win and his ability to go out there and impose his will on games like that.”

Maynor is the leader of an otherwise veteran group that starts two seniors and two juniors. Senior shooting guard B.A. Walker makes 42 percent of 3-pointers while averaging a team-high 14.8 points. Senior swingman Jesse Pellot-Rosa averages 13.0 points while making 43.3 percent on 3-pointers. As a team, VCU shoots 40 percent from 3-point range.

The Rams average 11.4 turnovers while forcing 16.1. Their biggest weakness is a lack of size; they start a pair of 6-7 players in Will Fameni and Michael Anderson on the front line.

What the Rams lack in height, they make up for in other skills and intangibles.

“These guys believe in themselves,” Grant said. “They believe in each other. No matter what the situation they believe they are going to find a way to win the game.”

Just ask George Mason.

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