A-10 Is Correct In Poll, VCU Is Clear Favorite
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Oct 11, 2013, 07:54
Following another NCAA Tournament berth and an appearance in the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship game, the fifth time in seven years they made the conference championship, all eyes are on Virginia Commonwealth Universityís menís basketball team for this upcoming season.
In a preseason poll conducted by the leagueís coaches, the Rams are predicted to finish first in the 13-team A-10 Conference, the first time they are bestowed the honor of preseason favorites in head coach Shaka Smartís five-year tenure.
The A-10 has it right.
VCU is no longer the underdog overcoming long odds to make a national name for themselves. They are a brand all their own and itís because of the talent and style of play they bring to the court.
The Rams are not only the Ďití program in the A-10, but also the best team in the conference. The preseason poll having ranked VCU No. 1 not only shows the amount of talent Smart has at his disposal, but the admiration for the work heís put in to bring the program to this point.
Check the stats and itís easy to see the culture heís established is a winning one: 111-37. Thatís not a typo.
Those numbers represent a coach who is 74 games above .500 and has VCU entering the 2013-14 season as one of just seven schools with at least one NCAA Tournament win in each of the past three seasons.
Smart led the Rams to a 27-9 record last season and their first appearance in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in nearly 30 years. In addition, VCU shattered the previous A-10 single-season record for steals with 422. The previous mark of 352 was set by Xavier in the 1998-99 season. The 422 steals is also the 18th most in NCAA Division I basketball history.
Six players return from last yearís team VCU squad, a dramatic shift, but one which has the opportunity to form Smartís deepest team since his first day on the job.
Returning are two Preseason All-Conference First Team selections Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic, along with Briante Weber, Rob Brandenberg and Melvin Johnson. But perhaps itís Weber who holds the true key to the season.
With team-leader and starting point guard Darius Theus gone after graduation, it will be up to Weber to handle the bulk of minutes at the point. The spark-plug off the bench is a player Smart canít get enough of because of the passion he plays with.
ďEnergy.† Heís the most energetic person Iíve ever been around in my life, basketball or otherwise, and thatís his gift,Ē Smart said to me about Weber after defeating UMass in the A-10 semifinals. ďIf a player is able to receive a scholarship at this level, then thereís obviously something that they do well, and for Bri, heís energy, enthusiasm, anticipation, and thatís why heís one of the best steal guys and one of the best deflection guys that Iíve ever seen.Ē
But the key will be converting those short spurts of energy and ball-hawking pressure into 30 minutes of constant pressure.
Although, Weber will have help from both Graham and Reddic who combined for 29.8 points per game last season to go along wit 14.1 rebounds. Reddicís put-back ability and length on defense causes mayhem for potential inbounds plays and thunderous dunks on offense.
Meanwhile, itís not unreasonable to see a major jump in production from sophomore Melvin Johnson. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged just 7.1 points per game last season but shot 42 percent from the floor and helped VCU advance to the A-10 finals last season with clutch shooting.
The addition of Terrance Shannon, a redshirt senior and transfer from Florida State, should also pay immediate dividends for a team which often times lacked grit in the paint last season.
Yet, for all of the talk of offensive firepower with the returning players and incoming freshmen like JeQuan Lewis and Jairus Lyles, it will once again be the defense which determines the amount of success the Rams will have this season.
VCU struggles in a half-court offense and itís the reason why both Saint Louis and Michigan were able to successfully contain the Rams in both meetings. Limiting turnovers does not allow the Rams to have fast-break opportunities, thus eliminating their biggest strength in the open-floor.
In fact, last season the Rams forced a turnover in 28.5 percent of their defensive possessions. They will need to maintain this mark if they are to remain atop of the A-10 Conference.
However, if history has any way of predicting the future, VCU will once again find themselves in the NCAA Tournament. The Rams are one of three teams to win at least 24 games in each of the past seven seasons, joining Kansas and Memphis.
VCU didnít suffer a misstep when they jumped from the Colonial Athletic Association, the No. 22 ranked conference, to the No. 7 ranked A-10 Conference. Itís something Smart spoke about after his teamís loss to Saint Louis in the finals last season.
ďWe didnít know we were in this league until last summer, and our guys never turned away from the challenge,Ē Smart said. ďThey stepped up, they battled.† Theyíre in that locker room crying right now, but they have nothing to feel sorry about because they battled and fought, and honestly, weíre one or two plays away from not only at least sharing the lead, the title in the regular season, but also winning today.Ē
With the sour taste in their mouths, a target on their back and reinforcements in a new group of players, Smart and VCU are in position to once again compete for an A-10 crown, continuing the winning tradition heís helped develop.