Rams’ coach Shaka Smart says VCU is ahead of where it was last October, but not yet where it needs to be.

RICHMOND, Va, – Last October, VCU Coach Shaka Smart was driving home the narrative that the Rams were a young (nine freshmen and sophomores) team trying to find its way. Early in the season, VCU played like it.

The Rams opened with a lukewarm win over lightly regarded Saint Francis (Pa.) and followed with ugly losses to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech. However, by March VCU was a locomotive, chugging to 18 wins in its final 20 games. Those two losses were decided by a total of three final points and one of them came by virtue of a 25-foot buzzer-beater.

It would be nice if the Rams, who return all but one player from that team, could just pick up where they left off and start blitzing through the schedule, but Smart says it doesn’t work like that.

“It’s never easy,” Smart said. “The offseason, even though we have experience, I’ve never been involved with a team in college coaching that could carry over the habits through the offseason. You have to rebuild that stuff every year. That’s one of the facts of coaching.”

That’s not to say VCU is starting over. It’s just not ready to win the Atlantic 10 tomorrow..

“I think anytime you have experience, you have advantages early in the year,” Smart said. “We’re a better team than we were at this point last year. Last year’s team got better and better each week, each month and was playing terrific basketball in the last month of the season.

“Last year’s team, at the end of the year, is significantly better than this team right now, so we’ve got progress that we need to make. That’s always the mark of a good team, is can you get better from October to November, from November to December, all the way through to March.”

There are 200 minutes available in every college basketball game. One of the biggest questions from year to year is who’s going to get them.

In many ways, VCU’s rotation, and its division of minutes, can be assumed to some degree. Juvonte Reddic, the Rams’ leading returning scorer and rebounder, and Darius Theus, who led the team in assists, will be on the floor as much as possible. Other regulars, sharpshooting guard Troy Daniels, Rob Brandenberg, Treveon Graham, Briante Weber and D.J. Haley all averaged between 15-26 minutes per game last year.

But there’s Brad Burgess’ playing time (32.3 minutes per game last year) to divvy up. Smart acknowledged that Graham, who averaged 7.0 points as a freshman last year, was the “logical choice” to replace Burgess, at least in terms of position.

Briante Weber was a defensive terror of the bench for VCU last season, averaging 2.1 steals in just 18.7 minutes per game.

Smart also believes he can lessen the load on Theus and his 31.2 minutes per game average with sophomore Teddy Okereafor, who he called “maybe our most improved player”. The Rams often struggled offensively when Theus was on the bench. But if Okereafor, who averaged just 5.6 minutes per game last year, can spell Theus for 10-12 minutes a game, it would go a long way.

Then there’s the case of Melvin Johnson. A top-100 recruit, Johnson joined VCU this summer. Known as a scorer and long-range shooter, Johnson’s skill set could be a shot in the arm for two of the Rams’ greatest areas of need. It also gives the Rams and Smart a deep stable of guards with Theus, Weber, Daniels, Brandenberg, Johnson, Graham and Okereafor.

“I think all of our guards are going to play,” Smart said Wednesday. “I think all of those guys are going to find their way onto the floor.”

How Smart finds playing time for seven quality guards is up to him, but they can’t all be on the floor for 25 minutes, that’s for sure. It’s a good thing he prefers to play four-guard lineups. Also, don’t expect Smart to change his lineup philosophy much this season, provided the Rams don’t get overpowered on the boards.

“We’re always going to start big,” Smart said. “We like having a bigger lineup on the floor to start the game, but certainly our smaller lineup has been successful for us. It’s been more difficult to guard for our opponents, and defensively, we’re a little bit quicker when we’re smaller. It’s just that one factor, you’ve got to rebound the ball. So, as we get better rebounding the basketball with our smaller team, we can play it more and more.”

VCU’s opponents outrebounded them by an average of 1.7 per game last season. Then again, the Rams, often with smaller lineups, led the nation in turnover margin (+6.47). As long as VCU does that, it can afford to give a little ground on the glass.

If Shaka Smart isn’t happy with rebounding, he can always turn to this year’s potentially deeper frontcourt. In addition to Haley and Reddic, senior David Hinton, sophomore Jarred Guest and freshman Justin Tuoyo will also vie for playing time.

In all, the Rams have 12 guys who can legitimately play, which is a good problem. On paper, this could be one of the deepest VCU teams from top to bottom in a while. Smart’s full-court pressing “Havoc” requires liberal substitution patterns to keep players fresh. But in the end, VCU will likely settle into an 8-9 man rotation. Somebody is going to get left out, unless of course you want to divide 200 minutes 12 ways equally.

Rob Brandenberg’s multifaceted skill set have made him a fan favorite and a regular in VCU’s rotation the last two seasons.

Smart says Johnson has been fighting a hip pointer since the summer, which has limited him in practice on occasion. Johnson has reaggravated the injury a couple of times, according to Smart.

“We still haven’t seen the 100 percent Melvin Johnson for a prolonged stretch of time,” Smart said.

If he can stay healthy, Johnson figures prominently in VCU’s plans. He’s regarded as a potent offensive threat and 3-point shooter. Smart will be looking for players to make up for the loss of Burgess’ 13.4 points and 81 three-pointers from last year. Johnson could be a difference-maker in both areas.

“Melvin’s good. He’s talented,” Smart said. “He’s very good on the offensive end, and he can have scoring outbursts where he can go get six, eight, nine points over the course of two minutes and change a game. I’m excited about the infusion of what he can do into our team.”

At the same time, Smart wasn’t ready to concede playing time to Johnson, noting that the freshman’s defense had room for improvement and, along with his health, would dictate his playing time.

“Rob’s a guy that, he’s probably the biggest, on our team, question mark in terms of, he could be a pretty good player for us or he could be a terrific player for us. He’s still going through the process of figuring out what goes into being a terrific player from a mental standpoint, from a confidence standpoint. But I’m excited about the challenge for him in his junior year.”

–Shaka Smart on Rob Brandenberg