It’s the most anticipated time of the year for Ram fans, the start of the college basketball season. In what I would consider my most surreal experience to date in my journey, and I’ve experienced some amazing moments the past few years, I sat in the Siegel Center media room for the first time ever awaiting the start of the preseason press conference with Coach Shaka Smart. Surrounded by framed articles of VCU basketball history and people who probably consider this their second home I quietly observed. Much like my first time in the Stu I watched as people greeted each other and caught up. It’s obvious this group, like the fans, have become friends over college hoops and bonded over the phenomenon of Havoc. It reminded me of high school when I transferred from out of state 1 week before my senior year and had to start over with people who had known each other since kindergarten. This scenario is strangely familiar only today there is a glaring spotlight and at least 4 video cameras behind me to record the event.
Welcome to the 2014 – 2015 season of Havoc where you can check your expectations at the door. It’s time to focus on the process, keep motivated, and work hard. According to Smart “Any high level team is a team that creates good habits in October and November and continues getting better throughout the year.” For him that meant learning not to decide who will play too early because things may happen and the guys will surprise you. “Every player comes into the season thinking they are going to play…going to start…When I was a player I thought that way. You want guys to think that way…when you start playing games it sorts itself out. There needs to be an understanding that in order for our team to be successful everyone has to sacrifice.”
There’s been a lot of attention on the incoming freshmen, especially since they come from a top 100 recruiting class. Coach Smart thinks it’s kind of the nature of fans and media, to some extent, to focus on the best 2 or 3 guys and the freshmen at this time of year, but he’s not concerned with outside expectations. His advice to the new guys “Keep a clear head. Don’t worry about expectations. Take care of business today.” According to Smart freshman aren’t the same players in March that they were in October and it depends on how quickly they adjust to the ups and downs of the transition between high school and college. Typically the most growth happens between a player’s freshman and sophomore years if they work at it between seasons. That’s good news for some returning players including JeQuan, Mo, Jordan, and Doug. As sophomore players these guys also now have their “feet under them and a level of understanding of what they do. It would probably be most natural for them to take the biggest jump.” He also called out the difference between understanding and loving the process. One thing is clear Coach Smart is all about the process – understand it, embrace it, live it and success will follow.
Shaka reflected on last seasons work. In a more light hearted moment saying he liked the 26 games we won. I didn’t like the other 9, which is probably the same sentiment as the fans. Everybody prefers the wins, but hey we learn something from both. In the latter part of the season Shaka noted there were some double digit wins but other games were really close. His take away on some of those close losses, especially on the road, focuses on “finding a way to be a little more solid, a little more disciplined, a little more unified as a group…that could be the margin for error between finishing second and finishing first.” Smart said overall last year the defense was just as good or better as prior seasons, but the offense was lacking. The solution according to Smart is to find a balance. He’s got a plan to address it saying to shoot a higher percentage they need to create better shots for everyone. This means the coaching staff will increase the focus on offense, but not diminish the work they do on defense.
Smart has made intensive off season conditioning, including Seal Team Physical Training, a staple of his basketball program. NCAA rules allow teams to start practicing 6 weeks prior to their first game, but it takes a lot of effort for players to maintain the Havoc pace and being in shape is key. Melvin Johnson, returning as a junior this fall, is following in former Rams Troy Daniels footsteps and has spent the most time at the Franklin Street gym over the summer. Coming in between 3 – 5 times daily, the coaching staff has had to force him out of the gym to rest more than once. Smart said Daniel’s was the best player they’ve had at taking direction from coaches and others and the only other player to spend so much off season time at Franklin Street. Shaka regards the ability to take direction as one of the most undervalued qualities in a player, but one that has taken Daniels “to the highest levels”. Daniels went to the NBA D league after graduating from VCU and continuing to work on his game was called up to the Houston Rockets last year.
One of the things Coach Smart doesn’t want to do is take Briante Weber’s disruptive impact for granted in his final season with the Rams. He says that working with him every day the coaches are used to him but when you talk to other coaches around the league and teams that they’ve played in non-conference play or any NCAA tournament there is a “real respect and a fear of what he might do on the defensive end, first in the press and then in the half court.” Weber has been working on improving his offensive skills and will have the opportunity to utilize them more with JeQuan returning and the addition of 2 freshmen who can rotate in and share point guard duties. Don’t worry though because he is “fearless” on defense and Smart says he can guard anyone and “he’ll fight them tooth and nail” so the Brifense should continue this season.
“Any good team has multiple leaders and guys that can pull the team together at critical time. Last year our 2 best leaders were Tre and Bri.” Treveon Graham, who is returning for his last year, is the most respected player on the team. Graham remains calm under pressure and has come in and made some big plays for the Rams in important moments including the long range 3 point winning shot in the UVA game with 1.4 seconds on the clock. He’s also the leading scorer with an average of 15 PPG last season. He’s not as vocal as Weber and Smart referred to him as the Teddy Roosevelt of the team, saying he’s the guy to “Speak softly and carry a big stick”.
One of the players, who may have been overlooked, but has the potential to make a big impact this season is Jordan Burgess. Burgess started in 19 games as a freshman, was a top 100 high school player, and came with a lot of expectations as the younger brother to Bradford Burgess, who had an impressive career at VCU. Now that he has a year under his belt there is less concern with expectations and it will become more about following the process. He was strong defensively last year and with this season’s focus on improving the team offensively we could see some movement on his stats there.
Finally in the absence of Juvonte Reddic, Mo Alie-Cox finds himself in the same position also “head and shoulders above” the others who could fill that spot. The “most pleasant surprise” of last season’s team Mo made an impact recording an impressive 48 blocks and is a fan favorite. The defensive chant “Mo Says No” was a new addition in rotation and in memes throughout the year. Shaka says he’s had a great offseason but it will be up to him what type of season he wants to have this year and he’ll need a high level of motivation. His challenge will be that he won’t be able to surprise the offense this season, but something tells us that he’ll still be intimidating even if the opposition knows what’s coming.
There were a few moments where Shaka gave us some items that make a great “wish” list for a genie in bottle (conveniently there are 3):
- 100% FG Pct for the team
- Treveon Graham to go from his 15 PPG to 30 PPG
- 2 of Mo – we’ll keep one at each end of the court (but we’re not sure even Havoc is ready for that level of intensity)
In summary here’s what you need to know about the upcoming season – check any expectations you have at the Stu’s doors, remember it’s all about the process, and prepare for some surprises because ‘Havoc Lives Here’!