Shaka Smart captured the imagination of the college basketball world two seasons ago by steering his VCU team to the Final Four with a bravado that showed in his players. At no point in its Final Four run did VCU feel as if it was an underdog. That approach will pay dividends as VCU moves out of the CAA and into the rugged Atlantic 10. Smart has the luxury of taking a veteran roster into the new league; five of his best players are upperclassmen, and two sophomores -- Briante Weber and Treveon Graham -- played extensively in their first collegiate season.
Smart has no qualms playing a four-guard lineup, but significant production may come from his frontcourt. Juvonte Reddic dominated at times last season -- he had 28 points versus William & Mary and added six double-doubles -- but also disappeared. Smart's job is to instill some toughness in Reddic, who could be one of the league's top inside players.
Reddic's running mate is 7-foot D.J. Haley, who does the dirty work that allows the shooters to shine. In spot minutes, Haley will set screens, crash the boards and distribute the basketball as well as anyone. A few basic offensive moves could make Haley a tremendous threat to defenses fleeing to the three-point line to cover VCU's cadre of shooters.
The Rams led the country in total steals (381) and steals per game (10.6) last season, which turned into backbreaking threes for Troy Daniels and Bradford Burgess. Graham can also put up points, averaging 7.0 points in 16.8 minutes off the bench as a freshman and getting to the foul line (3.3 attempts per game). Guards Rob Brandenberg and Weber should provide solid defense and versatility on offense.
With all of that firepower, senior Darius Theus is the heartbeat of the VCU team. Theus is the consummate point guard -- he isn't a scorer but scores in big moments, when the team needs him.
Jordan Burgess and Melvin Johnson are VCU's first top-100 recruits in the wake of the Final Four run. Burgess enters VCU as his brother, Bradford, graduates. Johnson, a shooting guard from New York, signed with VCU in July after decommitting from Miami. He played very well on the Rams' summer trip to Italy. Mo Alie-Cox, a 6-6 bruiser, also may work his way into the rotation.
The battles begin early. VCU jumps center with Alabama, Wichita State and old foe Old Dominion in addition to a trip to the Bahamas where they will face Memphis in the first game of The Battle for Atlantis. The Rams have success on their side -- they are 84-28 under Smart. And the program's momentum is palpable. VCU is one of five schools that sold out every home game last season, and the move up to the A-10 will increase the Rams' national profile.