|Some VCU players pose in front of Lake Como. George Clooney has a house there. (VCU Athletics)|
In our Trippin' series, we're talking to teams as they return from preseason trips to foreign locales. Check here for all Trippin' related stories.
"I think we won by 55 points a game," said VCU coach Shaka Smart.
So the Rams were the Rams.
They pressured the ball and created more than 30 turnovers in each exhibition, then visited Lake Como, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Michelangelo's David in their spare time. Smart and his players returned from Italy last week. I talked to the 35-year-old coach about the experience Tuesday morning. Here's what he said ...
What Smart learned on the trip: "It's very easy this time of year, from a players' standpoint, to be extremely unselfish and enthusiastic about what you're doing as a team, and I learned that all of our guys are right now. So the big emphasis for me will be making sure we stay that way through the twists and turns of the preseason practices, and that we stay that way once we get into the games and some guys are playing a lot and some guys are playing a little. I just think that's been an advantage for us over the past couple of years, and I need to make sure it stays an advantage.
Who stood out: "[Senior guard] Troy Daniels led us in scoring over there, and he only played about half of each game. He's a phenomenal 3-point shooter. He set our school record for 3-point makes last season, and I think he's really improved and matured as a player and a person. He's ready to have a very good year for us."
The biggest concern going forward: "Any time you're a pressing team you always have to strike the balance between fullcourt-defense and halfcourt-defense, and we have to get better there. Last year we led the nation in steals, and we're gonna be extremely aggressive again and try to turn people over. But at the end of the game, it comes down to being able to get stops in the halfcourt. And that's something we've struggled with at times."
- Though VCU played its "HAVOC" defense much of the trip, Smart acknowledged backing off late in games when the outcome was more than secure. "We pressed a little bit less when we got up," he said. "You don't want to stick it to people like that. ... But we're not very good if we don't play with aggressiveness."
- Senior guard Darius Theus ranks first among the returning players in terms of minutes averaged last season, but Smart didn't use him much in Italy because VCU wanted to return to the United States with a better understanding of its other players. "I already know what Darius can do," Smart said. "I have a good comfort level with him."
- Bradford Burgess is the only notable player from last season's team that won 29 games who will not be on this season's team that's ranked in the preseason Top 25 (and one), which means the Rams return seven of their top eight players. That's strong. And the guy most likely to move into Burgess' starting spot is sophomore Treveon Graham. "He really had a great summer," Smart said. "I guess if there was anyone ready to kind of step into Brad's role, it would be him. But we'll figure it out."
- Returning seven of the top eight scorers and adding a nice recruiting class could be a problem for some coaches in terms of finding enough playing time for everybody, but VCU's style figures to make this less of an issue. "We have to have depth with the way we play," Smart said. "We have to have 10 or 11 guys who can really go out and play and attack, and I think we'll have that as long as we, knock on wood, stay healthy."
- Smart is predictably excited about VCU's move to the Atlantic 10. He said his staff has already started scouting the opposition. "We broke up the [A-10] teams among guys on our staff, and they've done previews on each team," Smart said. "They've watched a lot of tape, and I've watched some tape. But, to be honest with you, I'm trying to focus a lot more on us."
- The coaches and players have mostly adjusted to the time change since being back in Richmond, but one person who hasn't is Zora Smart -- the coach's 11-month-old daughter. "It's hard for babies," Smart said. "They don't understand. So she's been getting us up at about 3 or 4 in the morning. But it's great. I wouldn't trade it for the world."