In his first press conference of the season, men’s basketball head coach Shaka Smart addressed the media, answering questions about the hype surrounding the 2014-15 campaign. Most importantly, Smart spoke about three uncertainties entering the season: senior leadership, player improvement on both sides of the ball and how his freshman fit into the equation early on.
Returning for their senior campaigns are forward/guard Treveon Graham and guard Briante Weber who Smart praised as the team leaders going as far as last year. Graham is by far the most respected player on the team, Smart said. Weber is the most fearless. Graham led the way on the offensive side of the ball averaging 15.8 points per game last season, and Weber provided the spark on the defensive side of the ball accounting for 121 steals setting a single-season record.
With one more year of eligibility for Graham, who Smart feels is the team’s best player, the focus will be on getting him more shots in hopes of improving an often-criticized shooting percentage, which dipped over the last few seasons.
“I would say overall last year we were as good or better as we’ve ever been on defense and we’re not as good as we’ve been on offense,” Smart said.
Smart said he feels a year of Weber playing at the point guard position along with more dedication on the offensive side of the ball will improve the team’s shooting woes.
“He (Weber) likes the idea of being the point guard, having the ball in his hand, but he can play off the ball as well, and he will play more off the ball this year just because we have more point guards to play,” Smart said. “Briante is a lot more comfortable on the offensive side than a year ago as he has put in really good work on the offensive end this offseason.”
Smart expects Weber and sophomore JeQuan Lewis to share the backcourt with the top recruit in VCU’s 14th ranked recruiting class, Terry Larrier. Smart described Larrier as a 6-foot-8 skilled forward who can also see time playing as a combo guard.
“Terry’s biggest key is coming into the game and practice being the best he can be right now,” Smart said. “He will see a similar role as Treveon and Melvin Johnson did their freshman year.”
Smart also spoke about redshirt sophomore Jordan Burgess. Burgess dealt with injuries last season as well as shooting inconsistencies. Smart said people tend to forget about the 6-foot-5 guard, but with another year of experience in the system and a growing maturity on and off the court, he will play a significant role in the offense.
According to Smart, the hardest worker in the offseason by far was junior guard Melvin Johnson, adding he has spent the most time in the Franklin Street Gym than any player he’s ever seen since he’s been a coach at VCU.
“We have to kick him out on multiple occasions,” Smart said.
Perhaps the biggest difference maker this season in the eyes of Smart will be redshirt-sophomore Mo Alie-Cox. The fan-favorite figures to be a huge presence down low.
“Mo will have the biggest impact on the defensive end,” Smart said. “The question will be what kind of season does he want to have.”
Alie-Cox will be the go-to option to lead a young frontcourt this season. Joining him will be senior forward Jarred Guest. Guest played sparingly last season, but Smart said Guest worked over the course of the summer to improve his play. The Rams will have to rely heavily on both men as the other “true big-men” deal with the maturation process.
“The other quote ‘big guys’ we have are all freshmen. (Antravious) Simmons is a redshirt freshman and then the other true freshmen Justin (Tillman) and Mike (Gilmore),” Smart said. “Those guys are going to be good, it’s just a matter of how quickly they adjust and how quickly they respond to competition at this level first in practice and then in the game.”
Less than six weeks away from the start of the season, Smart is excited to see how this version of the team will come together. VCU will participate in one closed scrimmage and an exhibition match with California University of Pennsylvania. The VCU Medical Center Black and Gold game will be Oct. 26 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.
“Any eye-level team is a team that builds great habits in October and continues getting better throughout the year,” Smart said.