College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 19 VCU continues to be one of the most consistent programs outside of a major conference with at least 24 wins in the each of the last eight seasons. The Rams are poised for more that simply consistent production with a highly touted signing class and a challenging non-conference schedule.
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Last season was a transition year for VCU as a program. The Rams graduated from a program that could be a national player in the wake of their 2011 Final Four run to a program that is a national player. VCU earned its second straight No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was upset by Stephen F. Austin in its opening game. The fact that VCU has moved from underdog to heavyweight is the storyline going into this season.
Coach Shaka Smart adds a top-30 rated recruiting class as he looks to earn his first Atlantic 10 title. That class may provide the kind of depth he desires to wear out the opposition in his havoc style.
“We do what we do, and that’s be an up-tempo team that attacks for all 94 feet,” Smart says. “(The freshmen) can add to our depth, which plays into our style of play and hopefully takes us to another level, to be more successful than last year.”
The Rams will be picked atop the Atlantic 10 not because of the incoming freshmen, but rather for a roster stocked with firepower and aggressiveness. VCU boasts the A-10 preseason Player of the Year in Treveon Graham and defensive menace Briante Weber. The duo meshes with a talented returning cast, adding up to a group that will be a formidable foe every time it steps on the court.
No. 19 VCU Facts & Figures
Last season: 26-9, 12-4 Atlantic 10
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAAs: 4
Coach: Shaka Smart (137-46 at VCU, 62-24 CAA/A-10)
A-10 Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA round of 32
Smart has to replace two-time All-A-10 performer Juvonte Reddic on his frontline. Sophomore Mo Alie-Cox may be the answer. Cox is freakishly built, a muscled 6-6 specimen who resembles a tight end but jumps like a pogo stick. Alie-Cox, who blocked five shots in a March win over Saint Louis, is a rim protector on defense but has a limited (for now) offensive game.
“Our team feeds off of him and the plays he makes,” Smart says, “and we’re excited about his improvement.”
For offensive production on the front line, Smart can turn to 6-9 redshirt freshman Antravious Simmons and his old school back-to-the-basket game or senior Jarred Guest, a spidery 6-8 face-up post player with a 15-foot jumper. Freshmen Mike Gilmore and Justin Tillman will also battle the returnees for playing time. Both carry the skill to make a difference but also need to adjust to the college game.
Graham will also slide down to play the 4 to give VCU a matchup advantage.
Weber has been among the league leaders in steals during his three-year career. He adjusted well to a new position last season, point guard, and enters his senior year a more mature player. “It’s been an ongoing process, but he’s made huge strides,” Smart says, “and we’re excited in terms of Briante as a leader and a winner.” Weber has a steady backup in speedy sophomore JeQuan Lewis.
Melvin Johnson hurt his knee twice last season but can be a lights-out shooter. Johnson hit eight 3s against Virginia Tech and has bought in to the system. Jordan Burgess hit 26 3-pointers in his freshman season and brings a level of toughness to the court that cannot be ignored.
Graham is within range of breaking the school’s all-time scoring record. He can hit the 3 but also earned the nickname Freight Train for his ability to steam down the lane, absorb contact and score.
Terry Larrier, a pure athlete and Smart’s best-ever recruit, will also see significant minutes on the perimeter.
Next season will begin with VCU riding a 20-game home winning streak and with 50 consecutive home sellouts. The Rams also have made the NCAA Tournament a habit, with bids in each of the last four seasons. Over the past 10 years, VCU has 251 wins, which ranks 14th-most in the country over that span.
VCU will be tested in the non-conference this season. Games against Virginia, Villanova, Tennessee and Cincinnati dot a stacked schedule. But for Smart, it isn’t about the opponent. It’s about VCU.
“Our overall team shooting needs to be better. We shot too low a percentage for us from the field,” he says. “But we’re a much-improved shooting team this year, which will make us a higher-scoring team.”
It’s a loaded class for Shaka Smart, led by silky Terry Larrier, rated a consensus top-50 recruit who could make immediate waves. Justin Tillman is explosive at 6-7 and will also challenge for time in the frontcourt. Mike Gilmore has a promising future, and Jonathan Williams is a commanding presence at point guard. Antravious Simmons is a redshirt freshman who can score on the low block.