Shaka Smart hears the question all the time, whether he is on the Virginia Commonwealth campus or just out and about in the Richmond community.
"Whenever you have success everyone wants to go out and do it again and I have people come up to me and say, "are you going to back to the Final Four this year?'" Smart said. "Well, it's easier said than done."
VCU made a most improbable run to the Final Four last season. It snuck into the NCAA Tournament as one of the eight teams to play in the First Four, then won the Midwest Regional as the No. 12 seed before finally succumbing to Butler in the national semifinals at Houston.
Butler's back-to-back appearances in the national championship game notwithstanding, it is usually a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment for a mid-major to reach the Final Four. Here's how difficult it is to fathom the Rams returning to the Final Four this season--they were picked to finish third in their own conference in the Colonial Athletic Association's preseason coaches' poll behind Drexel and George Mason.
While that may be a surprise to those outside the CAA, it isn't to those inside the conference.
"It's a terrific league," Smart said. "It's much better than a lot of people think it is, including those in the national media. The selection committee took some hits last year when we made the tourney and that's because people who don't know the CAA don't know how good the folks are in this league. You look at George Mason and what they did last year. They won 16 in a row at one point and were playing as well as anyone in the country. When we made our run to the Final Four, we were playing as anyone. We have programs capable of playing with anybody."
VCU certainly won't be in that category at the start of this season as it lost four of its top five starters from last season's team. Thus, much of the burden will fall on swingman Bradford Burgess, the lone senior. He was the Rams' second-leading scorer and rebounder last season, trailing only Jamie Skeen in each category, with averages of 14.3 points and 6.3 rebound s a game. Burgess was 92nd in the nation with a 61.1 True Shooting Percentage and 95th with a 118.7 Offensive Rating that edged out Skeen (118.0) for the team lead.
"Brad can be as good as he wants to be," Smart said. "He's such an unselfish player and he's always kind of deferred to some players around him but this year he's the guy for us. We need him to become our leader in every aspect and that's going to require him to be aggressive every time he steps on the court. He's going to get a lot more shots. In the past, he's been very, very good, but he shared the spotlight. He's a talented young guy and we're going to need him to put the ball in the basket and rebound."
VCU had a mixed bag in its lone exhibition game, a 71-48 victory over Division II California (Pa.) last week. The Rams, who have six freshmen, shot just 38 percent from the field, 28 percent from three-point range and 59 percent from the free throw line. Yet they also had 18 steals and there were some encouraging individual performances such as freshman guard Treveon Graham coming off the bench to score 16 points in 21 minutes and sophomore forward Juvonte Reddic recording a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"We're a young team but I'm very excited about the potential of this team," Smart said. "We have a very talented group. We have guys with winning experience. Now they have to learn what it's like to have an enhanced role and be able to do more to affect winning on a night-in and night-out basis."
VCU opens its season Friday night when it hosts St. Francis (Pa.). The Rams will play a challenging non-conference schedule, including an appearance in the Charleston Classic next week, visits to Alabama on Nov. 27 and Akron on Dec. 29 and home games against Richmond on Dec. 10 and UAB on Dec. 20.
VCU will find out how it shapes up in the CAA early as it visits Drexel in the third game of the conference season on Jan. 8. The Dragons return six of their top seven scorers from a team that went 21-10 last season and led the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (23.8) in addition to finishing 17th in offensive rebounding percentage (37.4).
"We know how tough the CAA is and we expect it to be a battle again this year," Smart said. "As a program, we are focused on coming to work every day, putting our hard hat on and getting better each time we step on the court. If we do that, the results will follow."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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