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Tobias Harris faces VCU challenge

In his first three college games against the overmatched likes of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Belmont and Missouri State, former Half Hollow Hills West star Tobias Harris of Dix Hills has been dominant. The 6-8, 226-pound power forward is averaging 16.3 points on 60 percent shooting plus 5.3 rebounds.

His efficiency in the low post has been obvious, and there's a maturity and polish to his game that is unusual for a freshman. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl offered this scouting report on his prize recruit earlier today:

"He's got a really good inside-out game. He can take somebody down low and score on the block and get to the foul line. He can put the ball on the floor and create and make tough shots for himself and get our guys shots. He knocked down a couple of three balls in the last game. If he can shoot that with consistency, that will really make him effective because, if you've got to guard him out there, he can put it on the floor and make you pay. It's a tough matchup. He can play big; he can play small. He can play with his back to the basket."

But Pearl expects the competition to go up several notches in the Volunteers' matchup with Virginia Commonwealth in the 7 p.m. semifinal of the NIT Season Tip-Off Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. Pearl expects the Rams (3-0) to start 6-8, 235-pound junior college transfer Toby Veal against Harris.

"[Veal] is very athletic and will be physical and try to push him around," Pearl said. "Then, they'll move [6-6 small forward Bradford] Burgess, who is one of the leading scorers in the Colonial Athletic Association over, and that will challenge Tobias to move his feet and keep a big guard in front of him. It will be a challenge for him to play well in this matchup."

As tournament director C.M. Newton pointed out, the NIT Season Tip-Off is one of the few exempt tournaments at the start of the season that requires its teams to earn their way to the semifinals as opposed to guaranteeing four teams to be in the semifinals no matter the results of earlier tourney games. In this case, VCU upset Wake Forest to reach the Garden along with favorites Tennessee, Villanova and UCLA.

The Rams feature 5-10 point guard Joey Rodriguez, who is averaging 18.3 points and 10.3 assists, and they play at a high tempo and try to outscore opponents. "They are one of the few teams in college basketball using 94 feet of press defense," Pearl said. "I'm anxious to see how we do against it."

In the 9 p.m. semifinal, No. 6 Villanova (4-0) faces UCLA (3-0), and Wildcats coach Jay Wright is familiar with Ben Howland's style from when he coached Pitt in the Big East. "His UCLA team is getting to be a great defensive team," Wright said. "It will be a grind."

Howland took three straight teams to the Final Four from 2006-08 but failed to add to UCLA's collection of titles. Last year was a rebuilding campaign, but the coach said he's very encouraged by the play of forwards Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt. But guard Malcolm Lee is nursing a sprained ankle and will be a game-time decision.
 

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