RICHMOND — From 1981-84, the University of Virginia advanced in four consecutive NCAA basketball tournaments, thanks in large measure to one towering young man: Ralph Sampson.
No state program, prior or since, has scaled such heights. VCU just might this season.
Coach Shaka Smart's Rams famously reached the 2011 Final Four and sustained that improbable success with NCAA tournament victories in 2012 and '13. Poised to open the season Friday at home versus Illinois State, they are ranked 14th nationally in the Associated Press media poll.
Rightfully so. VCU returns four of its top five scorers and its lockdown defender from a 27-9 squad that thrived in the program's first Atlantic 10 season. Add a rugged and tested Florida State transfer, plus eight freshmen, and you have what may become the deepest team in Smart's five seasons.
Neither Smart nor anyone at VCU is accustomed to such expectations. Why, even after the Rams' Final Four, not a single AP pollster included them among the 2011-12 preseason top 25.
Then-Colonial Athletic Association rivals George Mason and Drexel received votes in that poll. VCU did not.
To be fair, the Rams lost four accomplished seniors from their Final Four squad, but perhaps it's finally dawning on folks that even as personnel changes, VCU remains a contender.
And unlike Virginia in the '80s, VCU hasn't been dependent on an All-American, let alone a three-time national Player of the Year and subsequent No. 1 NBA draft who now resides in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Rather, the Rams have flourished with skilled, athletic, team-oriented role players who appreciate the zero-to-60 intensity their coach exudes and demands.
"We've handled it well so far," Smart said Monday of the preseason notoriety. "But we haven't played any real games yet. … It's all about what we expect of ourselves and teammates in practice, off the court."
VCU is 111-37 under Smart, winning 27-to-29 games in each of his years, and with guards Rob Brandenberg, Briante Weber and Treveon Graham, and center Juvonte Reddic, the Rams have a reliable core of upperclassmen steeped in success. Graham, Reddic and Brandenberg averaged between 15.1 and 10.4 points last season, while Weber burnished his reputation as a defender by ranking fifth nationally in total steals with 98.
Sophomore Melvin Johnson and redshirt freshman Jordan Burgess, brother of former Ram Bradford Burgess, figure to earn minutes on the wing, while 6-foot-8 fifth-year senior Terrance Shannon, a Florida State transfer, adds 240 pounds of bulk inside.
"Terrance is a welcome addition to our program because he's a kid that brings maturity, he brings experience," Smart said. "He obviously brings a toughness and physicality that really will help us around the basket. … He's come a long, long way since he got here in May."
Smart has crafted a non-conference schedule that includes Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the ACC. There are also games versus Belmont and Northern Iowa, and a possible Puerto Rico Tip-Off encounter with Michigan, which defeated VCU in last season's NCAA tournament round of 32.
So bank on the Rams being plenty prepared when they open conference play Jan. 9 at home against A-10 newcomer George Mason.
VCU again will press baseline-to-baseline — the frantic style is in Smart's DNA — but given his player's skill-sets and new NCAA rules that mandate more freedom-of-movement for the offense, Smart plans to deploy an occasional zone defense to keep his team out of foul trouble and keep opponents guessing.
"My natural tendency as a coach is man-to-man," Smart said, "but we're better at zone than we have been the previous years. … It has been an emphasis (in practice) to defend without fouling, and we have really tried to get our guys to understand the new rules.
"But there's the rules on paper and the way they're interpreted one game to another game. There's going to be some variability. There always has been, but there may be even more now with the rules shifting, and the best teams are going to be the ones that adjust."
Adjustments, yes. Extreme makeover, no.
“There’s this misunderstanding out there that we’re going to go out and play street ball and just run around, fly around and play this hectic style,” Smart said. “It takes a lot of discipline to play the way we want to play. Sometimes with personnel, it makes more sense to play in the half-court, it makes more sense to trap a little less. But that doesn’t mean that we’re pulling back the reins in any way.”Copyright © 2015, CT Now