We're still a month away from the first game being played, but in the eyes of diehard hoop fans, Friday night marked the official start to college basketball season.
For many programs, however, the first practice of the season is Midnight Madness, which is usually nothing more than a pep rally designed to build excitement for the program. At Georgetown, for example, three different student dance groups performed before both the women's team and men's team were introduced to the crowd -- complete with entrance music and a few minutes to dance in front of the fans. Thrown in the middle of the introductions? A 30 minute performance by Doug E. Fresh. It wasn't until the event was more than an hour-and-a-half old that the teams actually touched a basketball.
And when it was over, that "practice" had consisted of a couple minutes of layup lines, a couple minutes of a full-court passing drill run at quarter-speed, and a dunk contest.
Like I said, a pep rally, designed to rile up the fan base and impress any recruits on campus. And, frankly, it's worked. Programs like Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina have turned Midnight Madness into one of the premier events of the season and arguably their most important recruiting weekend of the year. It's become such a spectacle that ESPN actually set up a live internet broadcast of the events from around a dozen schools, while sending correspondents to eight different locations for a four-hour live show on ESPN U.
There are still some programs that operate the old school way, using the first practice as, you know, a first practice, and would it surprise you in any way to find out that VCU is one of the teams that doesn't have Midnight Madness? For the Rams, it's all business, all the time.
"That's who we are. That's what we do," said senior point guard Darius Theus. "We're going to bring our style of play into the A-10."
That style of play is called 'Havoc', because, as head coach Shaka Smart likes to say, they try to wreak havoc for 40 minutes. More specifically, what VCU does is pressure full court, looking to force turnovers by getting their opponents out of a comfort zone, and use those turnovers to get easy shots in transition. While the style is much different from that of a team coached by Bo Ryan or John Beilein, the bottom line is that Smart is a system coach. And, like those two, he recruits players to the strengths of his system. His roster is loaded with quick, athletic guards -- Darius Theus, Rob Brandenberg, Briante Weber, Melvin Johnson, Teddy Okereafor -- that love defending in the full-court and playing at the top of VCU's pressure. With Troy Daniels and Treveon Graham out there to shoot the ball and Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley protecting the rim, Smart has an ideal roster for a team that wants to spend 40 minutes causing havoc.
Last season, the Rams were quite successful at using that press to create turnovers. They led the nation in turnover percentage and steal percentage, which was a major reason why the Rams won 29 games, earned themselves an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and came within a Rob Brandenberg three of making it to the second weekend of the Big Dance for the second straight season.
It's fitting that VCU's season came down to a missed three-pointer, however, because that was one of their biggest issues as a team in 2011-12. When the Rams made the Final Four in 2011, it was their ability to shoot the ball from long range that made the difference. Smart would routinely put five players on the court that were knockdown three-point shooters and simply spread the floor, waiting for someone to break down the defense, get into the lane and find whoever it was that was left open. Last season, those threes didn't fall nearly as often -- dropping from 37.0 percent to 33.4 percent -- which became an issue for a team that played four guards and had almost 40 percent of their field goals attempts come from beyond the arc.
And this year, VCU will have to find a way to make-do without Bradford Burgess, who not only was their most valuable player, but was one of just two guys to shoot better than 31.3 percent from beyond the arc last season.
The 6-foot-6 Burgess was to VCU the past few years what Kim English was to Missouri last season. A pure small forward, Burgess' ability to shoot the ball (he was 43.4 percent from three as a junior before an early-season slump led to a 36.7 percent performance as a senior) and battle in the paint game gave Smart the perfect weapon at the power forward spot. Burgess created mismatches offensively without being much of a liability in the post defensively.
Burgess' value to the Rams extended beyond what happened on the floor as well.
"Brad, he was just everything to VCU when he was here," Theus said. "He was our engine. He was our vocal leader. We just lost a big leadership role with him leaving. He was a big piece of the puzzle that we're going to miss."
From a purely basketball perspective, VCU expects Treveon Graham to fill the void left by Burgess. Graham, who stands 6-5, showed the ability to score in bursts as a freshman, averaging 7.3 points in just under 17 minutes last season. He also proved himself as a capable rebounder and defender. Graham only shot 31.3 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman, but Smart is hoping that with a larger role and more playing time comes more consistency.
"[Treveon] will benefit from Brad moving on, and I'm really excited about him. The thing I'm most looking forward to about him is he's going to have more opportunity," Smart said at Atlantic 10 media day earlier this month. "Last year he was at times stuck behind Brad. He played with him at times, but now it's his deal and he knows that."
"You're talking about a kid who's very young for his grade, he's still 18 years old and he's a sophomore in college. He's still shooting the ball well and he's extremely strong so we're excited about him."
Smart isn't the only person excited about Graham's potential; Luke Winn listed him as one of the sophomores he predicts will have a breakout sophomore campaign.
VCU is no longer a member of the CAA, but that doesn't mean that the Rams aren't going to be expected to compete for a conference title. They were predicted to finish third in the Atlantic 10, earning three first-place votes in the poll. They'll likely find a place is every preseason top 25 poll that is released. This may be a new conference, but this is the same VCU team. Expect to see them have the same level of success.
"I remember when the announcement was made, I went over to the weight room and our guys were getting ready to lift weights," Smart said. "I was like, 'This is what you guys wanted. Now we gotta get to work.'"