It pays to have a Smart coach

Pictured from left to right: Mo Alie-Cox, JeQuan Lewis, Melvin Johnson and Treveon Graham are expected to return this fall. Photo by Audry Dubon.

Alonzo Small
Sports Editor

The VCU men’s basketball team finished last season with an overall record of 26-9, after finishing second in the Atlantic Ten and being ousted in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The 2013-14 Rams were runner ups in the A-10, losing the championship game to Saint Joseph University. The team finished 12-4 overall in the conference and earned a bid to the NCAA tournament as a fifth seed. In the Round of 64, VCU was matched up against Stephen F. Austin University, a school poised to do what VCU did years earlier: defeat the fifth-seeded favorite as a 12th-seed underdog. Stephen F. Austin did just that eliminating VCU in overtime 77-75.

Much could be made about how the team lost, but head coach Shaka Smart pointed no fingers, reminding everyone that the game of basketball is filled with painful lessons. For a coach who suffered his first exit in the second round after making four straight NCAA appearances, the program goes as far as Smart takes it, and the pieces continue to fall into place.

Incoming freshmen recruits include three-star and four-star athletes as ranked by and Guard Jonathan Williams and forward Justin Tillman are both three-star athletes with an ESPN grade of 78 and 80 respectively; forward Mike Gilmore out of Tallahassee, Florida ranks as a four-star athlete by Scout and a three-star athlete by Rivals with an ESPN grade of 83. Lastly, forward Terry Larrier, the Bronx, New York native ranked as a four-star athlete by both Rivals and Scout with an ESPN grade of 83.

Per Sports Illustrated, Larrier is a McDonald’s All-American entering the A-10 as the only top-50 prospect. A breakout freshman campaign in the A-10 is likely as Larrier is a forward who can create mismatches, shoots beyond the perimeter and creates shots on the floor.

Returning standouts are rising senior forward Treveon Graham, who recently attended the Kevin Durant Nike Elite Skills Academy in Washington, D.C. and subsequently was invited to the LeBron James Nike Skills Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada; forward Mo Alie-Cox, who emerged as a big body presence in the post who also converts on the mid-range shot; Briante Webber, the lockdown defender whose speed and agility energized the team on both sides of the floor and even got the NFL’s attention; guard Melvin Johnson, who last season led the team in three-pointers attempted and made going 20 for 51 (39.5 percent) and JeQuan Lewis who as a freshman last year showed great potential for the future of the men’s basketball program on both sides of the floor. For Lewis, after the heartbreak suffered in the closing moments of the Round of 64 loss, the new season offers a chance to show he can bounce back in a big way.

Key departures for the team are senior forward Juvonte Reddic and senior guard Rob Brandenberg who both were the last remaining members of the 2010-11 team that reached the Final Four.

Havoc returns this season with its trademark up-tempo style of play and a persistent defense on the ball that every year ranks high in the NCAA. Free-throw shooting is a concern as the team shot 67.4 percent on the year, down from 70.1 percent the year prior, and failed to convert on free throws in key situations. Averages were down in field-goal shooting (45 percent) assist per game (13.1 percent) and points per game (75 percent) as well.

The team’s three-point shooting was even with the year prior (35 percent) and improved in rebounding (37.6 percent) on the year.

Entering his sixth season as VCU head coach, the man at the helm was voted No. 13 of the top-50 coaches in college basketball today by ESPN. Additionally, ESPN’s own Dick Vitale named Smart one of the five best young head coaches in college basketball today. Vitale credits Smart for his communication on and off the court with players, his ability to recruit and Smart’s management through all phases of the game.

Every year, the once-anointed college basketball “Cinderella” moves farther away from the label that gained them nationwide recognition. VCU are annual preseason favorites to finish atop the A-10 and contend in the NCAA.

VCU men’s basketball starts in November.

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