The VCU Rams have won an average of nearly 27 games per year over the past six seasons and made four trips to the NCAA Tournament. Moving from the CAA to the Atlantic-10 will certainly be a step up in competition, but Shaka Smart should have his team battling for a conference crown from the get go.
Of course, it helps that everybody is back for the Rams - minus leading scorer Bradford Burgess. His younger brother, Jordan, was expected to be an immediate contributor, but was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA meaning he is not allowed to suit up for VCU this year.
Still, Smart has the luxury of returning seven of his eight rotation players from a year ago. Expect his team to once again utilize a smaller, quicker four-guard lineup led by returning starters Darius Theus, Rob Brandenburg, and Troy Daniels. All three play their roles well; Theus as the floor general and pesky defender, Brandenberg using his athleticism to attack the basket while Daniels locks and loads from deep (247 of his 299 field goal attempts were from three-point range last season.)
That trio doesn't even include sophomore Treveon Graham, who is expected to replace Burgess in the starting lineup. Graham could be the most talented all-around scorer on the Rams' roster, and many believe he will step into the role of go-to scorer. Briante Weber will once again play a key role off the bench due to his versatility, while Teddy Okereafor and highly-touted freshman Melvin Johnson also try to work their way into the regular rotation.
Juvonte Reddic holds down the fort inside. He made huge strides last year as a sophomore, and his physicality inside is needed as the only true post player in the starting five. Seven-foot D.J. Haley is also back and will be the main backup to Reddic while also allowing Smart to play the duo together at times when VCU needs a bigger look inside.
If the Rams can once again get balanced scoring and wreak havoc defensively, there is no argument you can provide that will convince me that they can't compete for the conference crown in their inaugural season in the A-10. Smart will get them back to the NCAA Tournament, where they sure as heck won't be an easy out.
Player to Watch: Darius Theus, PG
There isn't a whole lot of "sexy" to Theus' game, but he does many of the things that a true point guard should: lead the offense, take care of the basketball, get after it on defense, and come up big in clutch situations. With a lot of talent surrounding him, Theus knows his role is to get everybody involved and that is a big part of what will make VCU such a threat this year.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/13 vs. Wichita State
11/22 vs. Memphis (Battle 4 Atlantis)
11/23 vs. Duke/Minnesota (Battle 4 Atlantis)
11/24 vs. Louisville/Northern Iowa/Missouri/Stanford (Battle 4 Atlantis)