By Jon Rothstein
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The past 16 months have been a magical journey for VCU.
The Rams barely made the 2011 NCAA Tournament, and then managed to win five consecutive games to reach the Final Four. In 2012, VCU lost several key members from the prior season but became a better defensive team and won the CAA as well as a game in the field of 68 against Wichita State. Had it not been for a few missed free throws in the next round against Indiana, the Rams would have advanced to the Sweet 16 to play Kentucky.
Meanwhile their coach, Shaka Smart, was courted by a plethora of BCS schools before turning them all down to stay in Richmond. It seemed like this program that was primed to remain on their perch atop the CAA standings for years to come.
New era. New conference. New dynamic.
"We're more of an unknown now," Smart said. "Rather than a team that has a bulls eye, we're a group that has to prove ourselves."
And that's something that will have to happen on a nightly basis.
There seems to be a general consensus that Saint Louis, St. Joseph's, and Umass are the top teams in the Atlantic-10, but there are a slew of others including VCU and Butler that should be right in the mix for the NCAA Tournament. All of a sudden, five or six bids in the field of 68 might not be such a crazy thought for a conference that's clearly on the rise.
The biggest storyline to watch as the Rams bump up in conference will be how long they can sustain their smaller lineups. Known for their tenacious on-ball pressure as well as their uncanny ability to take opponents out of what they like to do offensively, VCU has regularly went with four guard alignments to maximize their speed and versatility on defense while highlighting their skill and 3-point shooing on offense. That type of approach may be more difficult in the Atlantic-10 against teams with more capable big men.
"We're going to play the same way we've always played as long as our personnel allows us to do so," Smart said. "Our big guys know they're stepping up a weight class. They're aware of what's ahead."
Smart said D.J. Haley, the Rams' incumbent starting center, has made major strides over the summer. Last season, VCU would regularly start Haley for the first few minutes of a half before taking him out and turning to a small lineup featuring power forward Juvonte Reddic and four perimeter players.
Don't be surprised if that happens again this season thanks to this team's new assortment of weapons.
Melvin Johnson, a 6-foot-3 combo guard out of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, New Jersey committed to the Rams on Friday night after initially pledging to play at Miami. Between Johnson and Jordan Burgess, the Rams have two freshmen guards that could play at most BCS programs in America. Both Johnson and Burgess were rated among the Top 100 players nationally by most recruiting services.
Veteran point guard Darius Theus returns to anchor the back court along with sharpshooters Troy Daniels and Treveon Graham. Rob Brandenburg is also back and looks due for a breakout year as a junior.
"He's got it in him," Smart said of Brandenberg, who averaged nine points per game last season. "He's just got to get better at finishing at the rim and always being ready to shoot. If he does that, his scoring output will increase dramatically."
The unsung presence on the Rams perimeter is feisty sophomore guard Briante Weber. The 6-foot-3 water bug will be an absolute nuisance for any opposing point guard and could allow Theus to slide off the ball for segments of games.
"He's one of the better defensive guards in America," Smart said of Weber. "He can change a game with his hands and feet."
Smart is also hopeful freshmen forwards Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tuoyo can provide minutes off the bench along with veterans Jarred Guest and David Hinton.
The biggest difference for VCU compared to the past few years could be overall team depth. The Rams have up to seven quality players in their back court --- and they'll need every one of them if they hope to be in the mix to win the Atlantic-10.
While realignment has robbed collegiate athletics of certain rivalries and traditions, this conference seems destined to benefit from all the changes.
"It will be a challenge," Smart said of the Atlantic-10. "It's one of the deepest leagues in the country and one of the best leagues in the country. There's a legitimate nine or ten teams entering the season feeling good about their chances to be in the NCAA Tournament."
Who will win the A-10 this year? Be heard in the comments section below...
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