VCU Coach Shaka Smart says Illinois State has been more challenging to scout because of roster turnover.

VCU Coach Shaka Smart says Illinois State has been more challenging to scout because of roster turnover.

RICHMOND, Va. – The first game of every season presents a little bit of the unknown, but this VCU opener may offer a little more mystery than usual.

The Rams tip off their anticipated 2013-14 season on Friday (7 p.m.) against Illinois State at the Verizon Wireless Arena. While the Redbirds were an 18-15 team a year ago, that information is essentially, uh, for the birds. This year’s Illinois State team features 10 newcomers. The Redbirds return a grand total of eight percent of their scoring from last year. ISU’s leading returning scorer is sophomore guard Nick Zeisloft, who averaged 4.5 points per game last year.

So, this is essentially a brand new team for second-year Redbirds Coach Dan Muller. While that presents a unique set of challenges for Muller, it will also give VCU Coach Shaka Smart a few headaches.

“One of the biggest challenges is that we don’t know a whole lot about them because they’ve got so many new players from a personnel standpoint,” Smart admitted Monday at his weekly press conference.

While the Rams may not be terribly familiar with the players on Illinois State’s roster, Smart is familiar with Muller, a longtime Vanderbilt assistant. Smart can also infer some likely characteristics from the Redbirds’ 2012-13 campaign, namely style of play. The skill level of teams and their execution will vary from year-to-year, but programs have a certain DNA. Under Muller, Illinois State has played fast-paced basketball. The Redbirds ranked 25th in the country in adjusted tempo last season, and the average length of their possessions was the third-shortest in the nation.

Muller appears to have assembled a roster with a similar style of play in mind.

“They’re a team that, they have some good size around the basket, but they also have the ability to play small and very, very quick lineups, with as many as three or even four guys on the floor that are extremely quick and tough to keep out of the lane, so we’ve got to do a good job of guarding the ball,” Smart said.

The Redbirds have added high-scoring junior college guards Bobby Hunter (5-10, 190) and Zach Lofton (6-4, 200), as well as freshman Lee Paris (5-11, 165). Hunter averaged 25.2 points per game last year Sante Fe College and poured in 17 in Illinois State’s 84-65 exhibition win over Quincy on Sunday. Lofton averaged 16.6 points at San Jacindo College and led the Redbirds with 19 points (6-of-11 FG) in 18 minutes in their exhibition win. Paris scored 10 points, handed out five assists and grabbed five steals Sunday in his ISU debut.

But in the end, Smart believes the Rams can negate their unfamiliarity with their opponent by focusing on the things they control, namely, their own execution.

“The most important team to prepare is ours,” he said. “You don’t want to get too caught up in the opponent. If we do what we do well, it gives us a better chance to win.”

While VCU is known best for its full court pressure and man-to-man defense, Smart says the Rams could play more zone this season.

While VCU is best known for its full court pressure and man-to-man defense, Smart says the Rams could play more zone this season.

While VCU spent the majority of its 92-54 exhibition win over California (Pa.) Saturday flummoxing the Vulcans with their full court press, the Rams did kick the tires on some 2-3 and 3-2 zone defenses.

The Rams didn’t play much zone last season due to Smart’s firm belief in pressing and man-to-man schemes and VCU’s success in that system – the Rams led the nation in turnover percentage. But Smart sounded open to the idea of playing more zone this season as a way of keeping opponents guessing.

“We will play, probably more than we did last year. My natural tendency as a coach is man-to-man, but I think we’re better at zone than we have been previous years,” he said.

The NCAA’s emphasis on hand checking and other defensive rules has spawned the belief that more teams will play more zone defense this year. The idea is that defenders who struggle to guard players one-on-one with quickness alone won’t be able to mitigate those deficiencies by playing physical.

VCU is stocked with speedy guards, and Smart believes that could mean the Rams will see less man-to-man than in previous years.

“I would anticipate this year, starting on Friday, we’ll see a lot of zone,” he said. “So, we’ve been working on it quite a bit in practice.”

Smart revealed Monday that he and his staff recently held a conference call college basketball statistics guru Ken Pomeroy.

Pomeroy is, perhaps, the leading authority on the use of advanced statistics in college basketball. His website,, popularized the usage of many “tempo free” statistics common today. The site employs metrics like player usage stats, offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, and adjusted tempo to clarify what’s happening on the basketball court.

Smart, who once considered becoming a history professor, is a noted academic. During his VCU tenure, he’s used a number of “non-traditional” evaluation tools in his coaching. His staff regularly tracks and analyzes statistical information from practices and scrimmages, much of it outside the realm of the standard points, assists, steals and the like. So it’s not shocking the VCU coach would reach out to Pomeroy.

“We’re just trying to utilize statistics to help us as much as possible in analyzing our team and our opponents,” he said. “Mark Twain said, ‘There’s three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.’ So, we’re not going to necessarily do everything we do based on numbers, but I think numbers can shed light on certain situations and tell you what’s going to become successful or more successful in what you’re doing.“

While Pomeroy’s website is a honey pot of percentages, ratings and predictive statistics, Smart says he and his staff wanted to pick Pomeroy’s brain to dig even deeper and find new strategies for evaluating his team.

As an example of the value of Pomeroy’s work, Smart pointed to the concept of rebounding. There has been a tendency in basketball to view the number of rebounds a team grabs in a game, on the offensive and defensive end of the floor, as a singular skill. Pomeroy has done the opposite, isolating offensive and defensive rebounding analysis as two separate entities. The Rams are a terrific case study for these metrics.

On the surface, the 2012-13 team appears to have been a fairly average rebounding team. The Rams’ average rebounding margin of minus 0.2 essentially ranked in the middle of the pack nationally. But using Pomeroy’s analysis, you find that the Rams were actually terrific on the offensive glass, ranking 35th nationally, while below average on the defensive boards (294th nationally).

That type of information allows Smart and his staff to narrow their focus to the defensive glass, as opposed to wasting additional time and energy where it’s not necessary.