Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 13 VCU.
Head Coach: Shaka Smart
Last Season: 26-9, 12-4 Atlantic 10 (t-2nd), lost in the opening round to No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin
Key Losses: Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenberg, Terrence Shannon
Newcomers: Terry Larrier, Michael Gilmore, Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams
– G: Briante Weber, Sr.
– G: Melvin Johnson, Jr.
– F: Treveon Graham, Sr.
– F: Jordan Burgess, So.
– F: Mo-Alie Cox, So.
– Bench: JeQuan Lewis, So.; Terry Larrier, Fr.; Jarred Guest, Sr.; Antravious Simmons, Fr.; Justin Tillman, Fr.; Jonathan Williams, Fr.; Michael Gilmore, Fr.
They’ll be good because … : Shaka Smart will once again have himself a roster perfectly suited to VCU’s ‘Havoc’ style of play. Briante Weber is an absolute nightmare to try and handle the ball against, having led the country in steal percentage in each of his first three seasons in college, and he’s the guy that plays the point in VCU’s full-court press. He’s the engine that makes that defense go, and when the Rams get on a roll defensively, they can simply overwhelm opponents.
Weber will be joined on the perimeter by senior Treveon Graham, who is arguably the best player in the Atlantic 10. Graham is a known-quantity at this point in his career. He’s a physical, 6-foot-6 wing that scores a lot of points, draws a lot of fouls and just generally causes headaches for opposing power forwards that have to guard him. There are some question marks at some other spots on the floor, but with those two seniors anchoring the lineup, VCU is always going to be good.
But they might disappoint because … : There are, more or less, three real concerns for this VCU team:
- The Rams don’t have all that much in the way of consistent perimeter shooting. Melvin Johnson can get hot in a hurry and hit four or five in a game, but he’s streaky. Graham is a respectable shooter, while Weber is barely a threat. Jordan Burgess shot 30.7% from the field as a freshman. This limits what VCU can do offensively, and when the Rams struggle to score, they struggle to get into their press.
- Mo-Alie Cox is one of my favorite players in the country for a couple of reasons: His name is terrific, and he’s a 6-foot-5 brick wall of a big man that looks like he should be playing football, not basketball. He’s physical, he can rebound, he can score around the rim, but he’s also VCU’s best front court option and he’s all of 6-foot-5. Antravious Simmons has lost a ton of weight and VCU landed a pair of forwards that are long, lanky and athletic in Michael Gilmore and Justin Tillman, but none of them are guaranteed to be impact guys this season. The front court could be a constant question mark.
- Sticking with that same theme, I’m not sure if VCU has enough depth this year. Freshman Terry Larrier, an athletic, 6-foot-8 wing that was a top 50 recruit nationally, should be an impact guy right away for Smart. JeQuan Lewis will provide some experience in the back court as well. Beyond that, there’s a lot of youth. Having quality depth is a bit overrated in college basketball, but not when you run the system VCU runs.
Outlook: Here’s a stat for you: Shaka Smart has never won a conference regular season title. Not in the CAA, and not in the Atlantic 10, and that is a point worth discussing. Ever since he led VCU to the 2011 Final Four out of the play-in game, Smart has been one of the hottest names in college coaching. He’s taken VCU from being a contender in a mid-major conference to being a perennial top 25 program and the overwhelming favorite to win one of the top nine conferences in the country.
Smart has done a terrific job building — and branding — this VCU team, but there are skeptics out there. Is VCU nothing more than ‘Havoc’? And can a team that relies on being more athletic, more aggressive and in better shape to win games really going to be able to beat elite teams, teams with players that can match up with VCU athletically who won’t be bothered by a full court press? It’s worth noting here that the team Smart had the most success with, that 2011 team, was the least ‘Havocy’ of any team he’s had in Richmond. They played the slowest pace, forced the fewest turnovers and won because they had shooters that caught fire from deep at the right time.
I say all that to say this: VCU is the best team in the Atlantic 10, which is the first time the Rams been the clear favorite since joining the conference. They should win the regular season title, and at least a game or two in the NCAA tournament. If they don’t win the league, however, than we’re going to have to have a real conversation about whether or not VCU can be elite using ‘Havoc’.