For two seasons we waited for the full manifestation of Shaka Smart’s HAVOC, a supposedly chaos-inducing full-court press. For two seasons, it was…good. Not great, but good. In a way, we were lulled into thinking that HAVOC was about offense, that it was about running and lighting up the scoreboard. But Smart continued to teach and recruit the type of athletes he needed to play his system. In 2011-12, HAVOC became “fully operational”.

VCU was a historically good defensive team last season. The Rams limited opponents to under 60 points per game (59.8) and ranked 22nd nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Defense metric. VCU led the nation in steals (381) and turnover margin (+6.5).

The question is, can they duplicate that type of performance this season? There are plenty of reasons to believe VCU can. The Rams return everybody but Bradford Burgess from last year’s team, and have added another HAVOC-type athlete in Justin Tuoyo (read: long, athletic, quick) to the mix. Consider me encouraged.

The move to the Atlantic 10 was predicated on better opportunities. Better opportunities for exposure. More nights on national TV. More buzz. And, most importantly, increased opportunities for NCAA bids through greater competition. Look, the A-10 is a better than the CAA. It just is. Even if we try to conveniently forget that the A-10 ranked seventh in RPI last year, while the CAA ranked 14th, the A-10 has been the better league since…always.

VCU ranked a pedestrian 145th in strength of schedule last season. Including the postseason, eleven of the Rams’ games were played against top 100 RPI teams (including three against George Mason). It doesn’t mean the Rams weren’t a great team last year. They proved, repeatedly, that they were. But it will be interesting to see how VCU responds to more peaks and smaller, softer valleys in competition this season. There are very few “breaks” in this schedule. The bottom half of the CAA is much different than the bottom half of the A-10.

There are currently 15 games scheduled against teams that were ranked in the top 100 RPI last season, including, potentially, eight that were in the top 50. All seven potential opponents at the Battle 4 Atlantis were top 100 teams last year. You can expect VCU’s strength of schedule to be much better than 145th this year.

Will 2012-13 be a breakout year for junior Juvonte Reddic?

As a fan, you may want to reflexively defend VCU’s offensive performance last year, and that’s okay. But the reality is that the Rams were an ordinary offensive team in 2011-12. More specifically, the Rams were an inefficient team, offensively. In the end, it didn’t alter the course of VCU’s season much because the Rams were sooo good defensively. Surely VCU will be okay this season if it continues to effectively use that formula, but I think we can all agree some offensive balance would go a long way.

Last season, VCU ranked 97th in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Offense, and was tied for 101st in points per possession (1.02). The Rams shot .410 from the floor, their worst since the 1998-99 season. Additionally, they shot .334 from 3-point land in 2011-12, the program’s worst since 1999-2000. If the Rams can push those numbers to around .440 and .370, they will be inherently more dangerous.

The Rams are very much the sum of their parts, but somebody’s got to be the guy. Two players that appear ready to break out are junior forward Juvonte Reddic and sophomore Treveon Graham. Reddic is the Rams’ leading returning scorer (10.3 ppg) and rebounder (6.7 rpg) and should get plenty of touches in the post. Graham will likely fill the hole in the lineup vacated by Burgess. He’s rugged knows how to get to the rim. He’s a scorer to his very core. This is a team with few pure scorers, so Graham can be extremely valuable to this group.

Two Rams can be called specialists, guys who have one particular exceptional skill. Troy Daniels is a purebred shooter and long-range gunner extraordinaire. Briante Weber is an fantastic on-ball defender, potentially one of the nation’s best. He’s like the Crazy Harry of defense. He just walks around and blows up plays.

How will Briante Weber top his 77-steal performance from last season?

But both Daniels and Weber were limited from time-to-time, not necessarily by their strengths, but by their weaknesses. Daniels shot .381 (94-of-247) from 3-point range last year, but was just .346 (18-of-52) from two. He showed improved ability to put the ball on the floor last year, but not enough make that his calling card. Weber, meanwhile, functioned as sort of a hybrid guard as a freshman. He has the body of a point guard, but isn’t an exceptional ball handler or distributor. He’s got a nice midrange game, particularly in transition, but hasn’t distinguished himself otherwise offensively.

You could say, “Daniels and Weber need to become more well-rounded players” and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But a zebra doesn’t change his stripes, not overnight, anyway. There’s no reason to think that Daniels can’t be a better rebounder or can’t take the ball to the rim occasionally, just as there’s no reason to believe that Weber can’t progress beyond his .250 percentage from 3-point range last year. But their specialties are what make them so valuable to the Rams. They need to be even better specialists. A Troy Daniels that shoots .400 hits 120 threes this year is infinitely more valuable to the Rams than a Daniels that averages 3.7 rebounds instead of 3.3. A Briante Weber that stays out of foul trouble and grabs three steals a night is an absolute game-changer. A Weber who can knock down an extra three every other game? Just a nice addition.

Save these dates:
Nov. 9: Florida Gulf Coast at VCU. Season Opener.
Nov. 13: Wichita State at VCU. Rams and Shockers meet for the third straight year. The first two were instant classics.
Nov. 22-24: Battle 4 Atlantis. VCU takes on a field that includes every great team except John Wooden’s 1972 UCLA squad.
Dec. 7: VCU at Old Dominion. The Rock Star Bowl, sponsored by Blaine Taylor.
Dec. 15: Alabama at VCU. Former Rams’ Coach Anthony Grant returns to the Siegel Center. He may want to check with Jeff Capel for notes.
Jan. 9: Dayton at VCU. The Rams play their heavily anticipated first Atlantic 10 Conference game.
Jan. 24: VCU at Richmond. Winner gets a sweater vest and a set of monogrammed towels.
Feb. 14: UMASS at VCU. The Minutemen play a HAVOC-inspired style and have a terrific point guard in Chaz Williams.
Feb. 19: VCU at Saint Louis. A battle between two of the A-10 favorites.
March 2: Butler at VCU. A 2011 Final Four rematch. The roof of the Siegel Center may get blown off this night.
March 6: Richmond at VCU. ‘Nuff said.
March 10: VCU at Temple. Rams in their only trip to Temple before the Owls jump off the A-10 ship.
March 14-17: Atlantic 10 Tournament. Jay-Z may or may not want to hang out with me in Brooklyn this weekend.