Shaka Smart is set to open his sixth season as VCU coach.

Shaka Smart is set to open his sixth season as VCU coach.

RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart understands the hype around his freshman class. He did recruit Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams, Michael Gilmore and Terry Larrier, after all. But he’s also seen enough freshmen struggle to know that caution is often the best path.

“We have four freshmen who have done a really nice job since they got here in June,” Smart said Wednesday. “Right now they’re going through the typical freshman fall ups and downs and transitioning to getting physically ready for real college practice and the competition that comes with that every day.”

Smart will get a closer look at his freshman class’ transition soon. The Rams kick off full team practices Friday, six weeks prior to their season-opener on Nov. 14 against Tennessee in Annapolis.

No VCU recruiting class has garnered as much attention as this far-reaching quartet, which Smart and his staff tapped from Detroit (Tillman), New York (Larrier), Jacksonville (Gilmore) and Richmond (Williams). ESPN rated the class No. 14 in the country last year. Larrier, Gilmore and Tillman were all ranked in ESPN’s Top 100 players.

Larrier has received the bulk of the preseason hype. A consensus four-star and top-50 recruit, Larrier’s choice of VCU over UConn was seen by many as a coup for the Rams. A 6-foot-8 guard, Larrier possesses an advanced offensive game, as well as the length Smart covets in his high-energy, full court press.

“He’s going to help us a lot this year,” Smart said. “I think he’s going to have a big role. I would say similar to a Treveon Graham, a Melvin Johnson did as freshmen. Maybe a little bit more if he can put it together. It’s always interesting to see how freshmen are able to deal with everything that goes into being a freshman, and he’s just getting started with that.”

There’s more psychology in coaching than most people understand. For Smart, this means managing expectations and teaching players to deal with the watchful eyes of thousands of outside observers. This will be especially true with Larrier, who is likely the most anticipated VCU freshman since Kendrick Warren.

“The biggest key for [Terry] coming in is going to be coming into practice and coming into games with a clear head for being the best he can be right now, and not worrying so much about the expectations that are placed on him or any type of things in the future that might be out there for him in terms of being on the All-Rookie Team or being Freshman of the Year. That stuff comes if you can take care of business today,” Smart said.

Smart has good reason to keep a level head when it comes to this class. Even some of the best players to wear a VCU uniform have taken some lumps as freshmen. The last three NBA players produced by the school, Eric Maynor, Larry Sanders and Troy Daniels, averaged 4.7, 4.9 and 2.2 points per game, respectively, as freshmen.

While his size allows him to play multiple positions, Smart says Larrier will roam primarily on the wing. He also envisions playing Larrier alongside Treveon Graham at times in what could become one of VCU’s more intriguing lineups.

It’s likely that Tillman and Gilmore, along with redshirt freshman Antravious Simmons, will have an opportunity to earn minutes in the post, given the departure of Juvonte Reddic. However, Smart did reveal that Tillman missed about six weeks of workouts during the offseason with a broken hand.

Williams, who Smart notes is the fastest player on the team, should give Smart plenty of options at point guard behind incumbent starter Briante Weber and JeQuan Lewis, a standout freshman who averaged 5.9 points and 2.0 assists last season.

Overall, Smart likes his options with this year’s multifaceted freshman class, but he knows there’s a lot of teaching to do between now and opening night.

“It just remains to be seen in terms of where they’ll fit in in the lineup, in the rotation or with our team,” he said. “That’ll be determined over the next six weeks and throughout the year. Just like any other freshmen, we want to get them better.”

Other interesting tidbits from Wednesday’s presser:

  • Smart says sophomore forward Mo Alie-Cox “had a great offseason” and “looks better than ever”. “I think the question with Mo is going to be, what kind of a season to he want to have? He needs to come with a high level of motivation to be the best he can be.”
  • Jordan Burgess had surgery on his left (non-shooting) wrist during the spring.
  • Smart also lobbed high praise at junior guard Melvin Johnson. “He might’ve spent more time in Franklin Street Gym [this summer] than any player we’ve had since I’ve been here. We had to kick him out on multiple occasions and just tell him, you’ve got to take a day off.”