RICHMOND, Va. – VCU’s late signing of top-100 guard Melvin Johnson was the Rams’ first since joining the Atlantic 10 on July 1. The evidence suggests it won’t be the last big splash for Shaka Smart and his staff.
The Rams will welcome a pair of four-star recruits this year in Johnson and swingman Jordan Burgess, as well as highly-regarded forwards Justin Tuoyo and Mo-Alie Cox to complete a recruiting class that has earned much praise.
It’s been a long time since VCU landed a four-star or top-100 recruit that wasn’t a transfer. Now the Rams will have two joining the program in the same year. But it’s not just significant locally. VCU is turning heads nationally.
“This is the first year I can remember where a [non-power six conference] program not named Gonzaga has had two top 100 players,” said Dave Telep, recruiting guru and ESPN senior national basketball analyst.
VCU has undoubtedly benefited in recruiting circles from its Final Four appearance in 2011, as well as its move from the CAA to the A10, but the biggest factor in the amount of talent the Rams are able to put out on the floor stalks the sidelines of the Verizon Wireless Arena.
“I think the personality and real charisma and star power Shaka Smart has really keeps [VCU] alive in a lot of instances,” Telep said.
ESPN Director of Recruiting Paul Biancardi also believes in Smart’s growing prominence on the recruiting trail.
“I see it as the culmination of all the ingredients,” he said. “Kids want to be somewhere where there has been success and they look at the coach. Kids, at the end of the day, look to who is coaching the team. Shaka will have that [Final Four] on his resume forever.”
As much as Smart’s presence matters when courting recruits, there is a real “A-10 effect”, some say.
“I do see it as significant,” Telep said. “When you’re sitting in the living room of a kid, you’re now selling a multi-bid league. It does raise the profile of the school to a degree. Changing leagues, having multiple bids, being on TV and being able to sell that.”
But recruiting isn’t simply about assembling the most talent. There are a lot of guys that can play basketball. What Smart and his staff have been able to do so far, says Biancardi, is find the right guys.
“If you look at Shaka’s recruiting and look at the players on the court…they fit the character and traits that he’s looking for,” Biancardi, a former head coach at Wright State, said. “He’s not afraid to say no to guys that don’t fit and that his staff believes won’t help VCU on the court, in the classroom and in the community.”
“They’re not going out and taking top 100 lists and just picking guys,” Telep added. “They’re still recruiting their system and paying attention to their markers of kids. They’re getting involved with better players who fit their system.”
With the exception of senior David Hinton, next year’s VCU squad will be comprised entirely of Smart’s recruits as it heads into its inaugural season in the highly-competitive A-10. Some will be stars. Some will be role players. Others may play sparingly. But teams generally need all types of players to be successful.
When you look at Smart’s recruiting classes since his arrival four years ago, you find that each player has at least one exceptional talent on the floor, if not several.
“You need a player like Johnson or Burgess when you’re in the A-10 or CAA to win that league,” Biancardi said. “But they also have a guy like the [Briante] Weber kid. These kids are very good players that fit with what VCU is doing.”
As a freshman, Weber was an occasional offensive contributor, but really excelled as an elite disruptor in Smart’s “Havoc” system of full court presses and traps. Weber recorded 77 steals in 2011-12 despite playing 18.7 minutes per game.
What the future of VCU recruiting holds remains to be seen, but if you follow trends – and VCU has seen four straight quality classes – there’s reason for optimism. Smart is a restless spirit and relentless recruiter with a permanent underdog’s mentality.
“[VCU] is not a novelty item,” Telep said. “It’s an established brand. They’re hanging banners, playing on TV and have a coach that is respected in the community.”