RICHMOND, Va. (AP) The VCU team that won 17 of its first 20 games and the 20th-ranked one that coach Shaka Smart is guiding into the stretch run of conference play have significant differences.
The Rams (18-5, 8-2 Atlantic 10) are tied for the conference lead with Rhode Island, but with Graham's return uncertain, VCU may exercise caution now hoping to have a healthy Graham for a postseason run.
''The challenge for us ... is finding the time when it makes sense to bring him back,'' Smart said, noting that he has consulted other coaches for advice.
In the offseason, Smart said, Graham's injury would cause him to be shut down for 6-8 weeks, the generally proscribed time to allow it to heal.
''It's hard with Tre because Tre's such a tough kid. He just says, `I can play,''' Smart said.
Graham has already tried that route.
The senior swingman, who is averaging 16.2 points, originally hurt his ankle in a victory at Rhode Island on Jan. 13. He sat out the next game, then played somewhat gingerly on the ankle for the next three games before aggravating it in the first half of a victory against George Mason on Feb. 4.
The Rams lost for the second time in three games on Saturday, 73-71 at Saint Bonaventure. They will look to get back on the winning track against La Salle (13-10, 5-5) on Wednesday night.
JeQuan Lewis, who has taken over starting point guard duties in Weber's absence, has earned high praise from Smart through two games in that role. Lewis said it's an opportunity for others to excel, too.
''It's an opportunity for them to do what they know how to do,'' he said. ''They're all Division I athletes. It's just a window for them. They just have to go with it. Don't stress about it. Just play.''
Going forward, there may be adjustments in how Smart wants them to do that.
Weber was on pace to break the NCAA career steals record when he got hurt on Jan. 31, and it's difficult to know how much the Rams can expect from their `havoc' defensive style without him.
''It's a small sample size with two games, but certainly we're going to look at what we can do with our team to give us the best chance to win,'' Smart said of possible defensive tweaks. ''It's still evolving.''
They have scored 72 and 71 points in the past two games, largely with no contribution from Graham, and Smart said those who question if VCU can win without him underestimate the Rams.
''We were a possession away from it Saturday, but no question, the margin for error is significantly smaller when you take one of those guys away and even more-so when you take two of them away,'' he said. ''But that's what happens to teams when you sustain injuries. I don't think we're unique in that.
''There's no necessarily replacing Briante and what he did and when Tre can't play, there's no one guy that can do what he does, particularly on offense. You just need other guys to do a little bit more.''
And hope, in the end, that giving Graham time to heal now pays off down the road.
''You don't want to be in a position where you are weighing the present against the future,'' Smart said of possibly keeping Graham on the bench, ''but that may be what we need to do in the coming weeks.''
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