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VCU basketball preview: Rams mix experience and youth to form an Atlantic-10 power

Shaka Smart hasn't had a team as talented as No. 17 VCU since leading the Rams to the Final Four in 2011.

Jeff Gross

When VCU is at its best, it seems like its trying to outrun the memory of the present by playing so hard and so fast that the opponent can barely process what's happening. 'Havoc' is a lifestyle as much as it is a signature defense for Shaka Smart's team, a culture forged in offseason Navy Seal training and cemented with full-court traps hellbent on suffocating the opposition. The Rams play like they have no use for added motivation, but the way last season ended incidentally gave them a lifetime supply.

VCU led Stephen F. Austin by 11 points with seven minutes left. They led by six with 56 seconds left when Jordan Burgess drilled a three-pointer. They led by four with 21 seconds left after a free throw by Briante Weber. Just when it seemed like VCU had a victory in its first NCAA Tournament game in the bag, they started missing free throws and gave up a game-tying four-point play with seconds remaning. Stephen F. Austin took control in overtime, and VCU's season was finished in the round of 64.

VCU loses the steady production of Juvonte Reddic in the front court this season, but almost everyone else is back. With St. Louis graduating most of a team that won the A-10 regular season crown last year, there's no denying VCU enters the new season as the favorites in the conference.

It starts with the man who makes 'Havoc' possible, point guard Weber. Weber isn't a polished outside shooter or pure scorer, but there might not be a better perimeter defender in college basketball. He finished last season No. 1 individually in steal rate for the team with the best steal rate in the country, according to KenPom. VCU was No. 6 in the nation at defensive efficiency last season, and that figures to remain steady with Weber back leading the attack.

Offensively, it's the Treveon Graham show. Graham has averaged over 15 points per game each of the last two seasons. At 6'6, 220 pounds, he's developed into a beast on the glass (seven rebounds per game) and could be a darkhorse candidate for one of the three All-American teams if he continues to get buckets while the Rams rack up wins.

The team is tied together by the best recruiting class in program history, one that includes three members of the ESPN top 100 and another three-star point guard. Smart has committed to the school and now bigger recruits are starting to follow. VCU isn't going anywhere, and its success will only get less and less surprising.

Projected starting lineup

PG Briante Weber, senior

SG Melvin Johnson, junior

SF Treveon Graham, senior

PF Mo Alie-Cox, sophomore

C Antravius Simmons, RS freshman

Key bench players: G JeQuan Lewis (sophomore), G Jordan Burgess (sophomore),  F Terry Larrier (freshman), F Justin Tillman (freshman), F Michael Gilmore (freshman), G Jonathan Williams (freshman), G Doug Brooks (sophomore)

How the Rams can go far this season: Defense and depth

Before finishing No. 6 in KenPom's defensive rankings last year, the Rams actually hadn't been as dominant under Shaka Smart as you might think, averaging the No. 64 defense in the country his first four seasons. With so many players returning from a great defense last season, though, there's no reason to expect a drop-off. The Rams forced a turnover on a quarter of their opponent's possessions -- the No. 1 mark in the country. They were also great at running shooters off the three-point line, limiting opposing offenses to just 30.3 percent shooting from deep, 12th best in the country, per KenPom.

Alie-Cox and Simmons figure to be a stout duo inside. Alie-Cox averaged 1.5 blocks per game in under 15 minutes of playing time last season. He's a surprisingly explosive athlete at 6'6, 250 pounds and should provide plenty of support inside for Simmons. Simmons was one of the jewels of Smart's 2013 recruiting class, but redshirted to get stronger in the weight room and more comfortable offensively. Smart hopes Simmons is his starting center the next four seasons.

An obvious downside to Havoc is that it's extremely physically taxing on the players. Fortunately for Smart, this might be his deepest team ever. Lewis made the unnecessary foul that helped end the Rams' season, but he was impressive at times during his freshman season. Burgess, a strong 6'5 wing, got plenty of experience a year ago as well, and figures to take a leap in his sophomore year as a former top 100 recruit.

The freshmen is what makes the bench so exciting, with three top 100 players all 6'7 or taller entering the program this year. With Weber, Graham and Johnson all likely to score over 10 points per game, there won't be much pressure on any of the young players early. Larrier is probably the best recruit in school history, turning down a scholarship offer from UConn and placing No. 43 in the class of 2015, per ESPN. Tillman, Gilmore and Brooks were all highly thought of enough as recruits that it wouldn't surprise anyone if someone (or multiple players) from that group broke out this year.

How VCU could get sent home early: Not enough easy buckets

For a team that played at the No. 25 fastest pace and caused the most turnovers in the country, VCU sure didn't get many easy baskets last season. The Rams shot only 45.6 percent on two-pointers, per KenPom, which placed No. 289 in the country. They also didn't get to the foul line much, and only knocked down 67 percent of their freebies once they got there.

Losing Reddic, a 54 percent free throw shooter, should boost the Rams' overall efficiency from the line. Weber hit 78 percent last year, while Johnson (73 percent) and Graham (69 percent) could bolster the team-wide percentage considerably just by improving slightly.

The other challenge for VCU will simply be playing in a tough A-10 conference that sent a record six teams to the NCAA Tournament last season. Even if St. Louis is down, Dayton and St. Joseph's should be tough once again.

Still, there might be more talent here than at any point during Smart's run, at least since the Final Four team in 2011. All signs point to Smart accomplishing one of the toughest feats in college hoops: turning a mid-major into a sustainable contender.