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
Today, we’re previewing the Atlantic 10.
In early September, on Belle Isle, a small 54-acre island in Richmond, Virginia, the VCU basketball team gathered in army fatigues for a week of Navy SEAL training. The daily workouts consisted of running with 300-pound sandbags draped over their shoulders, rowing in the James River, pushups, obstacles and an array of other challenging activities, all designed to help VCU remain one of the best conditioned teams in the country.
The Navy SEAL training, also known as ‘Hell Week’, has become part of the fabric of the program since 2011, and for seniors like Treveon Graham, they’ve been a part of each one.
“Communication, leadership, team-building, they always hit us with some sort of adversity or multiple forms of adversity, and it’s good for our guys because that’s what we’re going to face in games, particularly on the road and against great teams,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said in a video from ‘Hell Week’ 2014.
Graham, Briante Weber, JeQuan Lewis, Mo Alie-Cox and Melvin Johnson were selected as leaders for the five different groups, made up of players, coaches and graduate assistants, all of whom took part in the training. For Graham, the first-team all-Atlantic 10 forward, his last ‘Hell Week’ took on great importance in one area in particular.
“I thought it brought out the verbal aspect of being a leader,” Graham told NBCSports.com earlier this month. “My first three years I was more a lead by example. I’m more comfortable now just talking to teammates out on the floor in practice.”
The 6-foot-6 Graham was ready to be pushed in the week-long workout sessions, spending the summer traveling from camp to camp. There was the Kevin Durant Skills Academy in June. Then the LeBron James Skills Academy three weeks later, followed by the Chris Paul Elite Camp in August. Three years of playing in Havoc’s non-stop, full-court pressure defense has helped Graham take on an individual barnstorming tour like that.
In four years, Graham has gone from an under-recruited VCU commit watching the Rams’ improbable journey to the 2011 Final Four to one of the top forwards in the country, the Atlantic 10 preseason player of the year and the leader of a top-15 team with lofty expectations again this season.
“Last year we fell short of our goals,” Graham said. “We were second place in the regular season. Second place in the A-10 Tournament, and then we lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I think we can leave a good mark on VCU. I think this is one of the more talented teams I’ve played with since I’ve been here.”
Coming out of St. Mary Ryken High in Leonardtown, Maryland, Graham was still south of 6-feet as a sophomore, but after a late growth spurt, along with the endorsement of area coaches brought Graham’s to Smart’s attention.
“To be honest, I gotta give a lot of credit to Mike Jones [of DeMatha] and Steve Turner [of Gonzaga] for their words about Tre to us in the recruiting process,” Smart told the Washington Examiner last February. “[They helped] us understand how good he was so that we could have a sense of urgency in recruiting him.”
In that same class recruiting class was Weber, who led the nation in steals rate in each of his first three seasons. Graham and Weber, both perfect fits in Smart’s system, have gone from Colonial Athletic Association commits to all-Atlantic 10 caliber players. And in their final season at Richmond, both could end up leaving their mark in the record books. Graham, who has been a matchup problem for opposing forwards, would need a bump in his 15.8 points per game average to reach Eric Maynor’s 1,953 career points (Graham is currently 604 behind). As for Weber, he has a shot at the Division I record for steals in a career (385) as he enters his senior year with 296 picks.
But the two anchors of this team are looking to leave their mark on the NCAA tournament. Since the Final Four run in 2011, the Rams haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, last season coughing up a ten-point lead to Stephen F. Austin, as the Lumberjacks shot 53 percent from the field against the vaunted VCU defense. In 2013 Michigan, the eventual national finalist, trounced VCU by 25 in the Round of 32.
The unanimous favorites in the Atlantic 10 will get challenged early this season with non-conference games against Villanova and Virginia, and that’s before the Rams go through the gauntlet of A-10 play, looking to fend off the likes of George Washington and Dayton. VCU, led by Graham, made it through ‘Hell Week’, now it’s on to seven months of Havoc.