There's a basketball buzz in the state of Virginia, even this early in the season.
VCU and the Cavaliers are preparing to square off on the basketball court for the first time since 1998.
The No. 14 Rams (1-0) will travel to Charlottesville Tuesday night to play 25th-ranked Virginia (1-0). VCU has become the standard-bearer recently in state hoops with three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the 2011 Final Four,
"I think it's a great opportunity for both teams and also for all the fans of basketball in this area," VCU coach Shaka Smart said Monday. "There's a lot of great basketball that goes on throughout the year in Virginia, in the Mid-Atlantic region, but for this early in the year, for two teams that are in the top 25 to play one another ... I think that's what it's all about.
"And for our teams, it's a chance to test ourselves because when you play a team as good as Virginia, as talented and as experienced as Virginia, it's certainly a big challenge," Smart said.
Fans clearly agree.
The game is sold out, the first sellout of Virginia's 14,593-seat arena since Syracuse visited in 2007. The matchup Tuesday pits two teams that could hardly be more dissimilar in the way they play the game.
The Rams, of the Atlantic 10 Conference, play a 94-foot style they call 'havoc,' trying to force turnovers with ball-hawking relentlessness that often overwhelms teams despite them knowing what to expect. VCU also plays up-tempo on offense, running every opportunity it gets. The Rams won their opener 96-58 against visiting Illinois State.
Virginia, of the Atlantic Coast Conference, plays a more methodical game, often slowing things down on offense and patiently working for shots, and trying to stifle opponents with coach Tony Bennett's "Pack Line" defense. The goal is to contest shots, and Virginia routinely ranks among the national leaders in field goal percentage defense.
The Rams led the country in turnovers last season, forcing 19.7 per game, prompting Bennett to borrow a trick his father, Dick Bennett, used as a coach: putting seven defenders on the court during practice "to create a chaotic situation" while players on offense try to inbound the ball and advance it.
The teams met in a closed scrimmage before last season, which gave each a window into what the other does.
But has changed since that workout.
Virginia had no healthy point guards for that scrimmage, and VCU had just one big man, Juvonte Reddic, who was an offensive threat. The Cavaliers have since gotten Malcolm Brogdon back from injury to play the point, and added transfer forward Anthony Gill to add depth in the post.
VCU has added Florida State transfer forward Terrance Shannon, who scored 14 points in the opener.
Pace figures to be key, Smart said, or at the very least an indicator of which team is dictating the pace of the game.
"The reality is we're at our best when the game is going faster, and they're certainly at their best defensively when they can defend you in the half court and slow you down," he said. "I don't think it's necessarily going to be the be-all and end-all. I think what's much more important is who's getting high quality shots, whether they're in transition or the half court, and obviously, who's making them."
The Rams' rise in stature has made them a less risky opponent than they were a few seasons ago, but Smart said Gonzaga coach Mark Few told him finding willing home-and-home opponents would become more difficult as VCU tries to improve the quality of its nonconference schedule. He and Bennett, hired days apart, have talked almost since then about getting the teams together, and Bennett said he's glad it finally worked out.
"You can't (play) every team in the state every year, but I think it's good for the game, good for your program, and it challenges you," Bennett said, noting that when his father was at Wisconsin, he also tried to make it a habit to play a few in-state teams every season. "It's an opportunity for us, it's an opportunity for them, hopefully two good teams going at it in a great game."