VCU might not have the same hoops pedigree as other ranked squads, but the Rams proved last year that they can compete with the best in the country. And in 2013-14, they will return four of their top five scorers from a team that won 27 games a year ago.
Here's what you need to know about the 2014 Rams:
Virginia Commonwealth Rams:
2013 Record: 27-9, 12-4 A-10
2013 Postseason: Lost to Michigan in Third Round
Key Returnees: Treveon Graham Jr. G (15.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Juvonte Reddic Sr. F (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Rob Brandenberg Sr. G (10.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Melvin Johnson So. G (6.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg), Briante Weber Jr. G (5.4 ppg, 2.7 spg)
Key Additions: Jairus Lyles (G), JeQuan Lewis (G)
Given the potential that Shaka Smart's team had last year, it was a disappointing end to the season for the VCU Rams. Of course, their third-round NCAA Tournament loss came to national runner-up Michigan, but the Rams still had the ability to make a much deeper run.
Personnel-wise, VCU will look quite similar this year; three-point marksman Troy Daniels and catalyst Darius Theus are the only key departures. Treveon Graham, the Rams' leading scorer last year, will again lead the offense. The 6-5 guard's game is complete from just about anywhere on the court. He showed the ability to get hot from the perimeter when necessary, and also a knack for pulling down rebounds, averaging almost six per game.
Forward Juvonte Reddic might be the team's best player overall. He played more minutes than any other Ram last season, blocked about a third of the team's shots, was second in scoring and was by far the top rebounder.
But two players certainly do not make a team, and the Rams would not have been nearly as successful last year if not for their patented Havoc team defense. It's a 1-2-1-1 zone press after made baskets and dead balls with an emphasis on trapping the ball handler in the backcourt. The result is often a turnover by a confused guard has been forced to either throw the ball away, travel or be whistled for a five- or 10-second call.
Limit the other team's possessions, and you limit the points they can put on the board. VCU had the best turnover margin of any school in the country last year, and it wasn't even close. Opponents coughed the ball up an astounding 19.7 times per game, while the Rams lost the ball just 11.7 times.
This year's crew will need to be just as relentless defensively, especially without Daniels and Theus to give a spark and stability to the offense. Incoming guards JeQuan Lewis and Jairus Lyles can help. ESPN touts Lewis as a tough guard who "uses his quickness and savvy to make steals and deflections in the frontcourt." Lyles, meanwhile, is said to be lightning fast and can blow by any opponent. Lyles comes from the famed DeMatha Catholic High School, where he is no stranger to the big stage.
Whether or not this year's VCU team will be better than last year's remains to be seen, but the potential is there. Fans will get a good indicator early when the Rams travel to Puerto Rico for the Puerto Rico Tip Off. They'll face Florida State in the first round with a possible rematch with Michigan to follow. Kansas State, Georgetown and former conference foe Charlotte are all potential opponents later in the tournament.