Assistant Sports Editor
VCU men’s basketball head coach Shaka Smart utilized the newest installment of the Colonial Athletic Association’s annual Basketball Media Day last Tuesday to submit a testimony.
Smart believes when his team is at its best, it takes a backseat to no one. With the first two weeks of practice in the books, the second-year head coach says his expectations for the 2010-2011 season are just as high, if not higher than they were prior to the start of complete team training.
Coming off a post-season CBI Tournament Championship last year, the Rams are looking to carry that momentum and build off of it this season.
“We have a good blend of old and new this year,” Smart said. “Guys are learning from the experiences we had last year – positive and negative –and building on them.”
With the start of the regular season just over two weeks away, the VCU men’s basketball team can be defined by two words: leadership and learning. The Rams return four of their starting five from a year ago, while welcoming what is being called one of the best mid-major recruiting classes in the nation.
The class is comprised of forward Juvonte Reddic (Winston-Salem, N.C.), guard Rob Brandenberg (Gahana, Ohio/Lincoln), forward Heath Houston (Powder Springs, Ga./Hillgrove), forward Reco McCarter (Goldsboro, N.C./Wade Country Day) and center D.J. Haley (Palmdale, Calif./Palmdale).
The most obvious question for VCU during the off-season was replacing the strength and size of power forward Larry Sanders on the defensive end after finishing second on the Rams all-time leading block list with 277 blocks. Sanders decided to take an early exit after his junior year to declare for the 2010 NBA Draft and was later drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. Some believe Reddic, at 6 feet 9 inches tall and 225 pounds, may be the answer to that question. The big-man has packed on 15 pounds of muscle since arriving to campus in June, along with being named to ESPN.com’s “Top-10 Freshman We Can’t Wait to See: Non-BCS Edition” list.
“You don’t replace Larry with one guy because he was such a unique player,” Smart said. “It’s still so early, but he has the potential to get better quickly just like Larry did.” Smart said it still remains to be seen how much playing time Reddic will see due to competition with the likes of big-men transfers Jamie Skeen (Charlotte, N.C./N. Mecklenberg/Wake Forest) and Toby Veal (Savannah, Ga./Johnson/NW Florida State Coll.).
With the departure of Sanders, opportunities will open up for Skeen, who was often an afterthought on the offensive end.
“He is stepping into the role as the dominant big-guy on our team,” Smart said. “We are going to go to him early and often to make him a focal point in our offense.”
Veal joins the Rams as a junior prior to being listed as a top-40 recruit playing for Colorado his freshman year. The 6 feet 8 inches, 235-pound forward transferred to junior-college Northwest Florida State before heading to VCU, where he gained notoriety for his energy and rebounding abilities.
“We are really excited about Veal,” Smart said. “Toby is tougher and meaner than anyone we’ve seen since I’ve been here.” Veal brings a level of leadership and experience to the Rams that will help guide some of their young players.
VCU’s five incoming freshman will be met by a class of four seniors who will serve as mentors to the newcomers. Returning to the Rams as seniors are Skeen, Joey Rodriguez (Oviedo, Fla./Howell), Brandon Rozzell (Richmond, Va./Highland Springs), and Ed Nixon (St. Petersburg, Fla./Lakewood).
Rodriguez will assume his role as a team leader after being selected to the 2010 First Team All-CAA this past week after leading the league in assists last season with 208.
“Joey’s leadership is the difference between finishing at the top or not,” Smart said. “He will be even better as a senior, providing leadership and consistent play on both ends of the floor on a game-in, game-out basis.”
Leadership will be a critical component for the Rams in the upcoming season after posting a 27-9 record last year, one win shy of the school record. Smart heads into his second year as VCU head coach with confidence in his team’s leadership.
“I’m expecting an extremely high level of leadership this season,” Smart said. “Our leadership so far is infinitely better than last season, and that will be a big key to our successes this year.”