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VCU: Previewing the 2022 Legends Classic

Thanksgiving is around the corner – with parade floats, Detroit Lions football and trips to grandma’s house all just around the corner.

But the approaching holiday means something different for college basketball fans – multiple-team events, or MTEs.

Often held in destination locations like the Bahamas and Hawaii, MTEs serve two important purposes. The late November tradition represents the only time teams can play neutral site games during the regular season as well as the only chance to play games on back-to-back days before the postseason in March.

This year, the VCU Rams men’s basketball team (2-0) will put their unblemished record on the line at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York as part of the four-team Legends Classic. This year’s iteration is the 16th iteration of the tournament, while returning to the Barclays Center for the first time since 2019.

Both the Barclays Center and the Legends Classic are familiar to VCU: the Brooklyn Nets’ home arena is one of the frequent hosts of the Atlantic 10 Tournament in March, while VCU has appeared in the Legends Classic twice before.

The last time VCU appeared in the Legends Classic was in 2018, when the Rams fell to St. John’s in the championship game in overtime, 87-86. That game is the infamous “Marcus Evans was fouled” game, which saw a controversial no-call on what would have been a game-winning shot attempt in the last seconds of overtime. (The sequence in question begins at 1:51:55, if you want to be the judge).

This year, VCU will look to avenge its 2018 loss, with three Power 5 programs standing between VCU and a MTE championship. Regardless, the tournament will give VCU a pair of neutral site games against quality opponents and an opportune chance to further build a potential NCAA Tournament resume.

Up first: Arizona State

Arizona State Sun Devils

Record: 2-1

KenPom: 80

Pac-12 Preseason Poll: 7th

Top scorer: Frankie Collins (16.5 ppg)

VCU will open its Legends Classic against Arizona State at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday night.

Head coach Bobby Hurley and the Sun Devils enter Brooklyn after an underwhelming start to the 2022-23 season, capped by a 67-66 road loss to Texas Southern on Sunday. On opening night, Arizona State needed a 12-2 run to survive a scare at home against Tarleton State, powered by 21 points from sophomore guard Frankie Collins in his Arizona State debut.

Collins will clearly be the one to watch for Arizona State, as he leads the Sun Devils in points per game (16.3) and assists per game (5) through three games. Senior Warren Washington, the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker, will also be one to watch down low.  Washington is also new to the program, joining from Nevada over the offseason.

Wednesday’s game is also a mini-reunion of sorts. Collins transferred to Arizona State from Michigan and is a former teammate of VCU newcomers Zeb Jackson and Brandon Johns Jr. Coincidentally, Johns is the leading scorer for VCU through two games, averaging 14 points per game.

On paper, both teams are fairly even on the offensive end, while VCU holds opponents to about 10 fewer points per game than Arizona State. The key for VCU will be defense and rebounding, which was what doomed Arizona State against Texas Southern.

News also broke Wednesday morning that third-year player Marcus Bagley did not make the trip to Brooklyn with Arizona State due to a hip injury. Bagley, the brother of Detroit Pistons power forward Marvin Bagley, started the first two games of the season before missing the Texas Southern game.

VCU is listed as 2-point favorites by Caesars Sportsbook.

Wolverines or Panthers?

Depending on the results of Wednesday’s games, VCU will face either Pittsburgh or No. 20-ranked Michigan in either the third place game or the championship game.

Michigan Wolverines

Record: 2-0

KenPom: 30

Big Ten preseason poll: 3rd

Top scorer: Hunter Dickinson (26.5 ppg)

If you were to ask VCU head coach Mike Rhoades to choose VCU’s second Legends Classic opponent, he likely wouldn’t give you an answer.

He would be forgiven if the team wants No. 20 Michigan.

The Wolverines have opened the season strong, with a close 88-83 win against Eastern Michigan on Friday serving as the last tune-up for head coach Juwan Howard and his squad.

Michigan also enters the week with honors from the Big Ten conference. Junior Hunter Dickinson was named conference player of the week after averaging 26.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while shooting 22-for-28 from the floor. Dickinson also posted the second-highest scoring effort of his career, 31 points, against Eastern Michigan while becoming the 57th Wolverine to reach 1,000 career points on opening night.

Dickinson has also been added to the National Association of Basketball Coaches Player of the Year Watch List and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award Watch List, which is bestowed to the nation’s best center.

In brief, Dickinson is by far the player to watch should the Rams face No. 20 Michigan on Thursday.

Additionally, freshman Jett Howard was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week, posting the program’s first 20-point game by a freshman since Jamal Crawford in 1999-2000. Howard is the son of Michigan head coach Juwan Howard.

Junior forward Terrance Williams II is the only other Wolverine to average double figures so far this season.

Of course, a Michigan-VCU matchup would be a revenge game of sorts for Johns and Jackson, who transferred to VCU during the offseason. Johns has quickly become one of VCU’s strongest players on offense and leads the team in scoring, while Jackson has become the leader of the second unit and a key bench contributor in a traditional “sixth man” role.

The ties between the programs also run through the Martelli family, with former St. Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli serving as associate head coach at Michigan. Martelli’s son, Jimmy, is VCU’s executive director of men’s basketball operations.

VCU has 16 wins in program history against ranked opponents, the most recent coming last season against No. 25 Davidson. The last win against an out-of-conference ranked opponent came in November 2019, when VCU dropped LSU in former head coach Will Wade’s return to the Siegel Center.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Record: 1-1

KenPom: 100

ACC preseason poll: 14th

Top scorer: Blake Hinson (16 ppg)

On paper, head coach Jeff Capel’s Pittsburgh squad enters Brooklyn as the weakest of the four Legends Classic entrants.

Pitt enters the MTE with a 1-1 record, coming off a 81-56 home loss in a rivalry game to West Virginia. The Panthers won on opening night with a near-identical score, 80-58, against Tennessee Martin.

But, Pittsburgh may soon be getting a spark in the form of junior center John Hugley IV. Hugley had 23 double-digit scoring efforts in 2021-22 while ranking second in the ACC in rebounds per game, but has missed the first two games recovering from a knee injury sustained in September.

Aside from leading scorer Blake Hinson, graduate student guard Nelly Cummings will be a player to watch for Pitt. Cummings leads the team in assists so far this season after transferring in from Colgate, where he was First Team All-Patriot League last season.

If a Pitt-VCU matchup is in the cards, the point guard matchup between Cummings and Ace Baldwin – who leads VCU in assists – will be one to watch. Additionally, Hugley’s impact while trying to contain Johns and Jalen DeLoach will be interesting to see, as Hugley will likely be limited minutes-wise.

A Pitt matchup will be a reunion for VCU and Capel, who began his career as a head coach at VCU. During four seasons at the helm, Capel led VCU to the 2004 Colonial Athletic Association championship and an NCAA Tournament berth, as well as a NIT berth in 2005.

VCU played opponents from the ACC twice in 2021-22, defeating Syracuse in the Battle 4 Atlantis before suffering a season-ending loss to Wake Forest in the second round of the NIT.