AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Virginia Commonwealth junior Rob Brandenberg looked up from tying his shoes and rolled his eyes at the answers teammate Treveon Graham provided.
Asked about being a “madman,” the role he’s often asked to assume when the Rams go into the full-court press that is the defining aspect of Coach Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” attack, Graham admitted the entire concept was hard to come to grips with.
When told by a reporter that at St. Mary’s Ryken, where Graham earned All-Met honors as a senior, Coach Dave Tallman ran an offensive system based on the one Michigan Coach John Beilein uses, Graham simply shrugged his shoulders. He had no idea, even though No. 5 seed VCU was less than 24 hours away from facing the fourth-seeded Wolverines on Saturday in a South Region second-round matchup.
“It just slips my mind that he’s so young,” Brandenberg interjected.
This has been the story line all season long since Graham emerged as the Rams’ leading scorer. The Temple Hills native — he lived in Bowie as a teenager and commuted more than 90 minutes each way to St. Mary’s Ryken’s Leonardtown campus — arrived on VCU’s campus in Richmond having just graduated from high school as a 17-year-old, the result of enrolling in kindergarten a year ahead of schedule.
Even now, as a 6-foot-5, 215-pound sophomore averaging 15.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game during a breakout campaign, he’s still the second-youngest member of the Rams.
“Since I’ve been the youngest all my life, I’m used to it,” Graham said. “But now, I’m one of the biggest on the team so they can’t say much.”
Graham offers a glimpse into how VCU (27-8) has gone from surprise Final Four participant in 2011 to a program that hopes to forever shed the mid-major label.
Aside from the Rams, Graham’s only other scholarship offer until late in the recruiting process came from Cleveland State. But VCU saw a player who could score in a variety of ways, play multiple positions in Smart’s high-paced system and was already armed with a sinewy frame. More importantly, Graham had “a high ceiling,” according to VCU assistant Mike Rhoades, because he excelled in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference despite being at least one year younger than everyone he played against.
He committed to VCU in August 2010, eight months before Smart became a household name during his run through the NCAA tournament. Tallman said bigger schools such as Virginia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Cincinnati tried to make a late push, but Graham’s bond with Smart was too strong to break.
Smart even told Graham he would become the school’s all-time scoring leader if he came to VCU, a sentiment both Graham and Tallman shrugged off initially.
“It was not a recruiting line,” Smart said Friday. “I really believed it.”
That’s part of the reason why nobody, not Smart or Graham’s teammates, are surprised he has morphed into a prolific scorer and one of the best underclassmen in the country this season.
But becoming a “madman” in the 11 variations of Smart’s press was more difficult, and Graham’s evolution could be a big factor Saturday in an intriguing matchup of contrasts. The Rams lead the country in forced turnovers this year, but with point guard Trey Burke, Michigan (27-7) committed the fewest turnovers in the country.
Because he often plays power forward for the Rams, Graham is often guarding the inbounder when VCU enters its press, and Smart wants him so close to the end line the opponent “can smell your breath,” Graham explained. “I still brush my teeth, though.”
The role also entails running all over the court, creating havoc by trapping ballhandlers once the inbounds pass is completed.
Initially, Smart said, Graham “was like a chicken with his head cut off” because St. Mary’s Ryken never used a full-court press. But he has improved with time and the matchup problems he creates on offense supercede any defensive issues, to the point that his teammates often need reminders about just how young their surging sophomore remains.
“He’s a little boy in a grown man’s body,” junior Juvonte Reddic said. “But the way he plays, you would never know.”
Photos: Scenes from Round 1