November 13, 2014

(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 in the inaugural Veterans Classic 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.''

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 its 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?''

Graham is the Rams' best player and best scorer at 15.8 points per game, while Weber is the one that makes ''havoc'' go on defense, leading the country with 121 steals last season.

Alie-Cox has also come to symbolize the Rams' defensive roots with his shot-blocking ability. He swatted 48 last season and averaged just 14.4 minutes, but is expected to play much more this season.

Sophomore JeQuan Lewis will hold down the point guard spot when Weber sits out against Tennessee, and figures prominently in Smart's rotation.

Expectations aren't as high for Tennessee, which is being picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC just seven months after playing in the NCAA regional semifinals.

Rarely has a team coming off a Sweet 16 appearance been held in such low regard. Then again, this Volunteers team bears only a passing resemblance to the squad that made that postseason run.

Tennessee returns only four scholarship players from the team that went 24-13. The Vols also have a new coaching staff, as Donnie Tyndall arrived from Southern Mississippi after Cuonzo Martin left for California. All those new faces may explain why SEC writers predicted Tennessee to finish 13th in a 14-team league.

''I'm a guy that's up for the challenge,'' Tyndall said. ''Everywhere I've been, we've been, if you will, the underdog or overlooked in some way, shape or form. I'll embrace that. The biggest thing is I hope our players embrace that. ... We certainly don't anticipate finishing 13th.''

Tyndall spent the summer restocking a roster with players who could fit his up-tempo style, including luring Devon Baulkman and Kevin Punter from the junior-college ranks and adding Memphis transfer Dominic Woodson plus IUPUI graduate transfer Ian Chiles.

Richardson is the lone Tennessee player who started a game last season and the only one who averaged more than five points, so the Vols are hoping his NCAA tournament surge will carry into his senior year. He averaged 19.3 points and shot 61.7 percent in four NCAA tournament games.

The only other returning scholarship players are junior forwards Armani Moore and Derek Reese and sophomore guard Robert Hubbs, who played only 12 games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. Hubbs says he's healthy now.

Those players must replace the production of Jeronne Maymon and second-round draft pick Jarnell Stokes, who combined for 24.8 points and 18.7 rebounds per game in 2013-14.

This isn't the first time Tyndall has inherited a program without many returning players. He took over Southern Mississippi in 2012-13 and went 27-10 and reached the NIT in his first season, even though the Golden Eagles returned only four players from an NCAA tournament team.

''As amazing as it is, this is probably a little more experienced than that team,'' Tyndall said.

Tennessee has won all four meetings with VCU, the most recent a 77-72 victory in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden in November 2010.

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