Talented VCU Rams Feel The Pressure
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Nov 8, 2013, 08:12
RICHMOND — There is something different about this Virginia Commonwealth University basketball team than in years past. It’s not head coach Shaka Smart’s collection of quotes from Mark Twain, although he has a lot of them, and it’s not a change in defensive mentality, though there will need to be adjustments. It’s not even his discussions with Ken Pomeroy, the advanced statistics guru of college basketball.
It’s the perception from the outside: the media, other coaches and the general public concerning how good this Rams’ squad can be. The Associated Press has the Rams entering the season as the No. 14 team in the country, a spot rightfully earned.
Yet, it’s also an acknowledgement of how far VCU has come from being sold as a team which did not belong in the NCAA Tournament as a First Four participant, all the way to qualifying for the Final Four.
After the stunning run, one which saw the Rams graduate four seniors, VCU did not receive a single vote in the preseason polls — Colonial Athletic Association rivals George Mason and Drexel did.
But here we are entering the 2013-14 season. The Rams have qualified and won at least a game in three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Smart has compiled a 111-37 record, winning anywhere from 27-to-29 game a year, during his tenure.
Expectations are now the norm for a team with nine players never to have taken the Siegal Center court while donning the Black and Gold.
“We’ve handled it well so far, but we haven’t played any real games yet,” Smart said of the pressure of expectations. “I’ve told the team many times and I’ll continue to tell them — it’s all about what we expect from ourselves and of our teammates ... We can always get better, though.”
The question raised is how much better can this VCU squad be?
The Rams have never been a team to rely on one star player, but a collection of individuals, making this team look the most formidable Smart has had at his disposal since being named head coach in 2009. VCU returns four of its top five scorers last season and hauled in eight freshman and a bruising front-court transfer from the Florida State in Terrance Shannon.
The Rams have a deep stable of veteran talent in guards Briante Weber, Rob Brandenberg and forwards Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic for the freshmen to lean on.
And it’s a player like Weber who may hold the key to the Rams success this season.
Weber, already with a national reputation as the one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the country, ranking fifth nationally last year with 98 steals, has to pace himself and affect his teammates in a positive way.
“Briante, in his first two years, obviously defense has been his calling card, but he’s done as much as a lot of four-year players here in their first two years,” Smart said of the junior guard. “Now, it’s time for him to step up. The best thing he can do with his energy is make it contagious.”
In the preseason tune-up match against California (Pa.), Weber registered just two steals, but he dished out nine assists — one off his career-high set on Dec. 7 of last year against Old Dominion — a mark the Rams need him to reach consistently this season.
But the Rams will also need the bruising 6-foot-8 Shannon to impose his will on their opposition, completing a formidable frontcourt for the first time in Smart’s four seasons. His transition from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Atlantic 10 Conference and most importantly, his transition to the VCU way of doing things will be watched intently.
“He’s a kid that brings maturity, he brings experience,” Smart said during his Monday press conference. “He obviously brings a toughness and physicality that really will help us around the basket.”
Also paramount is the ability for the freshmen class to adjust quickly to the college game, giving Smart the ability to use various substitution patterns, helping his team stay fresh during the game. Each member of the eight-player class earned minutes during the 92-54 victory last week.
Doug Brooks racked up a game-high 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting in just 13 minutes of action, but perhaps it was redshirt freshman Jordan Burgess’ seven rebounds from the guard spot to go along with 11 points which truly impressed.
Yet, Smart will learn more about his team during a non-conference slate which includes playing the likes of Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Belmont and a possible match-up against Michigan.
“That remains to be seen how many guys will be able to play in a big game,” Smart said of the depth of his team. “We’d like to play 10 or 11 guys consistently, but they have to be ready to play.”
Although the most pressing concern for the Rams has to be just that — their press. With the new rule changes focused on eliminating hand contact on offensive players, the Rams will have to temper their havoc style, but Smart said the goal of defense will not change.
“We just have to remember within our program, because there is a lot of attention paid to our style of play of turning people over, that the primary goal on defense is to get a stop,” Smart said. “It’s not to turn the other team over. Obviously a turnover is a form of a stop ... it’s the most exciting form ... but most importantly we want to stop the other team.”
While adjustments will be made and newcomers will be transitioned into the system, Smart will continue to simplify his approach in the easiest way possible like the ease of a Mark Twain quote.
“There’s three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”
The statistics say VCU turned teams over 28.7 percent of their offensive
possessions last season — tops in the country — and one unlikely to change after remaining consistent over four seasons.