New season means fresh start for Rams

Peter Mason
Contributing Writer

Taking four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, including one to the Final Four in 2011 and picked this year to win the Atlantic 10 Conference, the VCU Rams have earned their place as one of the top college basketball programs in Virginia and the country.

High expectations will surround head coach Shaka Smart and the program this year when their regular season begins on Nov. 14 against the University of Tennessee.

“We have a ways to go in terms of being ready for Nov. 14,” Smart said. “I thought last year we had a really good defensive team, and a so-so offensive team. So if there’s one side of the ball where we want to get better, it’s on offense.”

Click to Enlarge

The Rams averaged 75 points per game in the 2013-14 season. Senior forward/guard Treveon Graham and junior guard Melvin Johnson were two of the Rams’ scoring leaders. Johnson, who came off the bench most of last year, was named A-10 Sixth Man of the Year. This year, he will be playing as one of VCU’s starters.

“Last year I definitely preferred the bench,” Johnson said. “It gave me a better feel for the game, just knowing what I was about to go out there and do. This year I’m pretty comfortable starting.”

With the schedule VCU faces this season, good leadership and execution are two of the biggest things that both Smart and the players believe are important to their game plan.

“I think last year was a downfall in our shooting percentage,” Graham said. “I think that’s because we didn’t execute plays well. I think this year we’ll really get into that.”

The Rams will play an early match in the season against the University of Virginia Cavaliers, whom they defeated last year 59-56 on the road. U.Va. went on to win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season, and made an NCAA Tournament run. This year, the Cavs will be visiting the Siegel Center on Dec. 6 for the rematch in a building the Rams don’t often lose in. A-10 opponents Saint Louis University and Saint Joseph’s University are also games which will be tough matchups for the Rams.

The SLU Billikens finished their season last year with a conference record of 13-3. They also won the regular season, which was one game in front of VCU, who finished their season as runner-ups in the standings and conference championships. The SJU Hawks were the team that defeated VCU 65-61 in the championship round of the A-10 tournament, before the Rams ultimately had their season end with a 77-75 overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin Univerisity in the second round of the South Region in the NCAA tournament.

“You want to play your best basketball at the end of the year,” Smart said. “We have a really, really challenging schedule, so they’re all tough games, we’re going to have to bring our A-game, and we’re going to need a lot of guys to step up.”

The Rams lost four players from last season, two of whom were seniors: Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenburg. This season, Smart is counting on his four upperclassmen to be good leaders for the remaining sophomores and freshmen.

“He’s (Smart) a people person with us,” senior forward Jarred Guest said. “He takes the time out to just figure out how we’re doing throughout the day, just finding out little things that he can use for the team.”

When Smart was asked by reporters about Graham and his leadership role for the team as a senior, he explained that he was pleased with Graham’s confidence this season.

“He’s never going to be the most vocal guy in the world,” Smart said. “But he’s more sure of himself and he’s definitely speaking up more. We force it some, but when you’re out there on the court, it’s just a matter of being comfortable with it. But I do think that each year he’s been here, he’s been more comfortable in his own skin.”

When VCU participated in the Navy Seal training, Graham was put in charge of one of the groups, and was in charge of doing all the talking. This was a way of getting him better prepared for a leadership role for the team.

“We’re trying to get our leadership up from last year,” Graham said about himself and the other remaining seniors, Guest and Weber. “It wasn’t bad as a whole, but it wasn’t where it needed to be. I think our leadership is a lot better than it was last year.”

“This is my senior year, I want to have a great senior year, it’s my last year. I’d love it if I could come out on top of the A-10,” Graham said.

One of the issues for VCU last year was playing on the road. They finished an impressive 15-0 at the Siegel Center, yet 6-5 in road games.

“That’s probably one of the reasons that we didn’t win the regular season,” Johnson said. “The road is extremely hard to play on. Some days are just not your day, but if we try and limit those days, I think we can do much better.”

The Rams finished their overall season with a record of 26-9 with their 12-4 record in the A-10. On top of the five road losses, two of their losses were at neutral locations, and the other two were the two postseason losses. The season opener against Tennessee will be played at a neural site as part of the Veteran’s Classic in Annapolis, Maryland. A-10 conference play will begin on the road against Fordham University on Sunday, Jan 4.

“I think the biggest thing for us, is to have a growth mindset,” Smart said. “Which says ‘I can and will grow from any experience.’ No matter whether we win, we lose, we play great, we play poorly, we need to grow, and we need to get better.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply