October 1, 2009

Notebook: VCU's Sanders a fast riser

Whenever his high school basketball coach used to mention the possibility of a future in the NBA, VCU forward Larry Sanders would reject the idea as if it were a weak floater from an overmatched opponent.

After all, Sanders hadn't played organized basketball until his sophomore year at Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High School. How could he expect to play basketball in college, let alone the pro ranks?

"My high school coach always said little stuff about the NBA or a little stuff about college, but I never really paid attention," Sanders said. "It was like a foreign language to me. When he said the NBA to me, I would say, 'Coach, calm down.' "

Those NBA discussions don't seem so outlandish anymore.

Sanders enters his junior season as a legitimate All-America candidate and a potential first-round draft pick. The 6-foot-9 forward is the main reason why VCU has realistic NCAA tournament aspirations despite losing point guard Eric Maynor to the NBA's Utah Jazz and coach Anthony Grant to the University of Alabama.

The guy who once tossed aside any dreams of playing in the NBA no longer hesitates to make ambitious goals.

"I want to try to lead the nation in rebounds," Sanders said. "That's one of my goals. I want to be in the top five, if not leading the nation."

That may seem like a long shot for someone who didn't even lead the Colonial Athletic Association in rebounds last year. Sanders ranked second in the league with 8.6 boards per game and also averaged 11.3 points per game while helping the Rams go 24-10 and reach the NCAA tournament.

But those numbers don't accurately measure Sanders' upside.

Mock drafts at draftexpress.com and nbadraft.net both forecast Sanders as the No. 15 overall pick next year. His breakthrough season as a sophomore and his 7 1/2-foot wingspan helped make Sanders a pro prospect. His performance this summer at Amare Stoudemire's summer camp and the LeBron James Skills Academy solidified his status as a possible first-round pick who might even slip into the lottery.

Sanders savored the opportunity to get an up-close look at how Stoudemire and James went about their business. He also cherished the chance to see how he measured up against top college players from bigger-name programs.

"It was a mental thing in my head that I felt like I was the last guy chosen to be here, so I have to go that much harder than all these guys," Sanders said. "When they're tried, I'm going to try to pick myself up and go even harder. That was my mentality. After a while, some guys were just ready to leave. But I would have stayed all summer."

That same approach to the game helped Sanders make the meteoric rise from basketball novice to NBA prospect.

Sanders said he only started playing basketball because Port St. Lucie coach Kareem Rodriguez talked him into trying out. Rodriguez looked at Sanders and saw plenty of untapped potential.

"It was just his height initially, his height and his long arms and the way he stood real tall," Rodriguez said. "A lot of tall kids that age slouch and are embarrassed to be tall. He kind of embraced his height a little bit. He had a few friends already on the team, so it wasn't hard for me to talk him into it."

So why hadn't he played beforehand?

"If you go to the playground and play basketball, you have to either dribble or shoot," Sanders said. "At that time, I couldn't do either one. I was the guy they picked because he was tall, and I'd never play again because I wasn't good. It wasn't fun for me."

Once he joined Port St. Lucie's team, he started having much more fun. Although he remained an unpolished shooter and dribbler, his size and athleticism made him an outstanding defender, rebounder and shot blocker.

Those skills helped make Rodriguez have faith in Sanders' long-term potential. The next step was making the student a believer as well.

"I mentioned first of all college basketball, that he had a chance to play college basketball, and from there if he worked really hard, the NBA could be there simply because he was such a willing learner," Rodriguez said. "He wanted to learn so much. [I knew] what's in the NBA in regard to guys who are making money that are just able to block shots, rebound and do stuff around the basket. And that's what has kind of made Larry, Larry. He's able to do those things.

"I knew in the right situation where he would learn more, there was potential there. VCU happened to be that right situation for him, where he could learn a lot more."

The fact he caught on to the game so quickly didn't surprise Sanders' mother, Marilyn Smith. She pointed out that her son always had a knack for learning things quickly.

Smith remembered how Sanders started to draw as a hobby as a second- or third-grade student. Before long, he was completing all kinds of sketches. Sanders' rapid emergence as a basketball player represented a case of history repeating itself.

"Once he starts learning, likes something and sticks with it, there's no stopping him," Smith said. "He'll just learn till there's nothing more to learn."

Sanders still had much to learn when he arrived at VCU as a raw two-star prospect. Sanders figured he would redshirt his first season, though he instead averaged 16.6 minutes per game as a true freshman.

The fact he played at all underscored Sanders' extraordinary physical talents, since he was so far behind his teammates in experience and knowledge of the game.

"My basketball IQ was really low," Sanders said. "When Coach would explain stuff, I'd stop him in the middle because I didn't understand the terminology. I didn't know what a back-door cut was."

That made his emergence last season all the more remarkable.

Sanders rebounded in double figures in just one of VCU's first 11 games, but he went on a tear late in the season. He averaged 12.2 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.2 blocks over the final 10 games of the season. His surge included a star-making 18-point, 20-rebound, seven-block effort as VCU whipped George Mason 71-50 in the Colonial championship game.

He now needs to carry that late-season momentum into the upcoming year. VCU is counting on him to emerge as more of a leader now that Maynor has closed his brilliant college career. Sanders' draft stock could soar even higher if he helps VCU maintain its status as the Colonial's top team without Maynor in the lineup.

Sanders knows it's difficult to replace a first-round draft pick. Sanders developed enough of a kinship with Maynor that he could figure out in advance what the talented guard planned to do on any given play.

But he also enjoys playing alongside Joey Rodriguez, who likely will replace Maynor in the lineup. Sanders said he enjoys the fact that Rodriguez doesn't play it safe on the floor and instead utilizes a high-risk, high-reward style.

Rodriguez planned to transfer after Grant's departure, but he changed his mind and decided to stick with the program. His change of opinion reflects the way VCU has adjusted to new coach Shaka Smart.

"It was really, really shaky at first," Sanders said. "But after players got to know [Coach Smart] and understand what he was trying to do and bought into what he was saying, it just made everything a lot smoother. He went about the situation perfectly. He didn't come in and start demanding stuff and saying, 'This is how we're going to go.' He compromised a little bit. I think it went perfectly.

"Now there's no turning back. I told my teammates there's no turning back now. It's too late to be iffy. You have to have two feet in or no feet in."

Pearl's problem

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl undoubtedly made an inappropriate remark with cameras rolling during a charity event last week.

"I've got a tough job," Pearl reportedly said. "I've got to put these guys from different worlds together, right? I've got guys from Chicago, Detroit. I'm talking about the 'hood!' And I've got guys from Grainger County, where they wear the hood!"

Pearl never should have made the joke, and to his credit, he later apologized. But let's hope the fallout from this incident doesn't cause Pearl to become more guarded in his dealings with the media and the general public.

Although Pearl has done a great job turning around Tennessee's program, the Volunteers haven't advanced beyond the Sweet 16 during his first four seasons on the job. Tennessee's emergence as one of the nation's most glamorous programs isn't based solely on what the Vols have accomplished on the floor. Tennessee garners plenty of attention in part because of Pearl's engaging personality.

If Pearl becomes more circumspect, his team might become a little less interesting to follow.

Bummer for Binghamton

Let's hope Binghamton fans enjoyed their first trip to the NCAA tournament last season. It could be a while before their school goes dancing again.

Binghamton guard Emanuel Mayben was kicked off the team and arraigned on cocaine distribution charges last week. D.J. Rivera, Malik Alvin, Corey Chandler, Paul Crosby and David Fine also were dropped from the team last week, though a specific reason wasn't given for their dismissals. The upheaval continued Wednesday with the resignation of athletic director Joel Thirer.

"If any of the young men in our program don't respect the decisions that have been made or the rules we have in place, then they need to move on with their lives," Binghamton coach Kevin Broadus said in a statement.

Rivera ranked second in the America East Conference in scoring last year, though league coaches left him and all other Binghamton players off the all-conference team. Reports circulated at the time that the coaches may have been trying to make a statement about the way Binghamton was operating its basketball program. The New York Times reported during the 2008-09 season how Binghamton had taken chances on a number of transfers who had experienced academic or legal problems elsewhere.

Rivera, Mayben and Alvin were three of Binghamton's four leading scorers last year. Mayben and Allen posted the Bearcats' top two assist totals.

Before last week, Binghamton and Boston University figured to enter the season as co-favorites in the America East Conference. Binghamton's problems should establish Boston University as the clear front-runner. First-year coach Pat Chambers, a former Villanova assistant, inherits a Boston University roster that features nine seniors.


One week after the oddly timed firing of Army coach Jim Crews, details are starting to emerge about the reasons for his dismissal. Army athletic director Kevin Anderson wouldn't confirm or deny a report in the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y., that Crews was accused of physically and verbally abusing a player last season. Although Army deputy athletic director Gene Marshall is serving as Army's interim coach, Anderson told the Times Herald-Record he hopes to hire a full-time replacement before the start of preseason practices on Oct. 15.

Army wasn't the only program to make a September coaching change. Grambling State removed Rick Duckett last weekend. Duckett's dismissal was part of the fallout from the August death of Grambling player Henry White. White's family told the WISN television station in his hometown of Milwaukee that White and two teammates collapsed while running in 104-degree heat without water during a workout less than two weeks before his death. While the university only reported that Duckett had been placed on administrative leave, the coach told ESPN.com that he had been fired. Robert Washington Jr., an assistant on Duckett's staff, will take over as Grambling's interim coach.

Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony returned to the Syracuse campus last week as the Orange officially opened the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center. Anthony, who led Syracuse to the 2003 national title in his lone season of college basketball, donated $3 million toward the construction of the $19 million facility. The building includes two full practice courts, a strength and conditioning room, a training suite, locker-room facilities and offices for the men's and women's basketball coaching staffs. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told FanHouse last week that the Orange plan to retire Anthony's jersey sometime this season.

Kansas State forward Luis Colon fractured his left hand in a workout, but the Wildcats are hoping he will be back in time for the Nov. 19 season opener against Boston University in the Puerto Rico Tipoff. Kansas State coach Frank Martin announced last week that Colon would miss four to six weeks. The 6-10 senior started all 34 games for Kansas State last year and averaged 4.4 points and 4.7 rebounds.

Virginia Tech freshman forward Cadarian Raines will have to put the start of his college career on hold. The 6-9 forward from Petersburg, Va., fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot during a preseason workout and will miss eight to 10 weeks, the Hokies announced last week. The Hokies open their season Nov. 15 against Brown.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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