No. 15 VCU challenges: Youth and expectations

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Coach Shaka Smart and his Virginia Commonwealth basketball team have become regulars in the NCAA tournament since that improbable run to the Final Four in 2011.

VCU is ranked No. 15 in the preseason Top 25, the second consecutive year with the Rams in the rankings to start the season.

VCU is also the runaway pick to win the Atlantic 10 Conference, meaning that Smart's youngest and perhaps most talented team yet will have expectations to contend with all season.

The first test comes Friday night when they'll meet Tennessee at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. However, the Rams will be without starting point guard and team leader Briante Weber.

The senior is on pace to shatter the NCAA record for steals, but he missed the Rams' Black and Gold scrimmage and an exhibition game while serving a suspension for violating a team rule in the summer.

It's also the Rams' first season since 2011 with no holdover members of that Final Four team. But senior guard and scoring leader Treveon Graham said the team is well aware.

''We played with some of those guys. Everybody on the team played with somebody that played in that game, so we know the tradition, and we know how hard it is to get there,'' he said of the Final Four.

''I think everybody is one board and wants to get back there so we can experience it ourselves.''

Four players who don't have that experience are the freshmen Smart signed for this season. They're led by 6-foot-8 guard Terry Larrier, whose chose VCU over a number of high-profile suitors, including Connecticut. He's joined by guard Jonathan Williams, 6-7 forward Justin Tillman and 6-9 forward Michael Gilmore.

VCU went 26-9 last season, but finished with back-to-back losses - to Saint Joseph's in the finals of the conference tournament and an upset to Stephen F. Austin in their NCAA tournament opener.

That has led to a new mantra - ''faceless and nameless'' - for this season, low-post defensive whiz Mo Alie-Cox said. The goal is not letting anyone get too impressed with what others are saying.

''I think we're going to do a way better job this year than last year,'' Alie-Cox said. ''It's something that we talk about every single day, our identity. That's something we want to add to our identity is humility. People are hyping us up. Can we be humble enough to go on the next day?''

Here are some things to watch with VCU this season:

GET SELFISH, TRE: Treveon Graham is the Rams best player and best scorer (15.8 ppg last season), but has games where he's a non-factor for long stretches. Smart said he and Graham have discussed it and Graham knows he has to be more aggressive because he's the key to what the Rams offensive.

THIEVING WEBER: Briante Weber is the one that makes ''havoc'' go, leading the country with 121 steals last season. He needs 90 to break the NCAA career mark of 385 set by Providence's John Linehan (1998-2002), but needs more than that to be the young team's vocal leader on and off the court.

MO KNOWS: Mo Alie-Cox has come to symbolize the Rams' defensive roots with his shot-blocking ability. He swatted 48 last season and averaged just 14.4 minutes. He's expected to play much more this season. Cox has never fouled out of a game and will need to keep that up with the freshmen big men still raw.

FORGETTING SAN DIEGO: Sophomore JeQuan Lewis will hold down the point guard spot when Weber sits out against Tennessee, and figures prominently in Smart's rotation. He needs to forget the foul that produced a four-point play and allowed Stephen F. Austin to oust the Rams from the NCAA tournament last year.

HOME-COURT: VCU was 15-0 at home last season and that might be hard to repeat. Among their five games against BCS-level teams is a home date against No. 9 Virginia on Dec. 6.

---

Follow Hank on twitter at: http://twitter.com/hankkurzjr

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.