VCU was picked first in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll and is currently 11-3 after 14 games. CBS Sports Network and CBSSports.com's Jon Rothstein sat down with Rams coach Shaka Smart to discuss VCU's non-conference schedule, the Rams' overall depth, and the constant battle of keeping an edge despite more and more fanfare.
Jon Rothstein, CBSSports.com: You were very meticulous this year in how you put together your non-conference schedule. You wanted to make sure you played several mid-major teams that had a real chance to win their respective leagues. Now that you have one game left (Stony Brook) before Atlantic 10 play begins, are you satisfied with what you've gotten out of it?
Shaka Smart: It's still to be determined. You wait and see how some of these teams wind up in terms of their own regular season. You try to win as many games as you can and as I've said before, the scheduling aspect is challenging. It's not like you can pick and choose who you're going to play. I like the fact that we've been able to challenge our team.
CBSSports.com: Now for three consecutive years, VCU has played in an early-season tournament and lost a few games but then managed to get better as the season moved along. Why do you think that's been part of your trajectory?
Smart: I think we've been humbled a little bit in those early tournaments. I think with that humility has come a re dedication to an improvement in practice and that's carried over into the games.
CBSSports.com: How much harder is it to play non-conference games at VCU now versus a few years ago because the bulls-eye on your chest gets a little bigger with each season that passes?
Smart: It's a big difference. It's something that our guys really experienced when we played Florida State earlier this year. It was a unique dynamic in that they had an unbelievably motivated team. And they had a good team too. We had beaten them in the Sweet 16 a few years earlier so that contributed to their motivation, but they were like “hey, let's take these guys out --- they're number 10 in the country”. We had never really been in that position in the past. We've always been the hunter. It's a transition and an adjustment. It's something we're still working through.
CBSSports.com: How hard is it to maintain the edge that goes along with being the hunter when it's obvious that now VCU has become the hunted?
Smart:It all starts with our guys. When we had Darius Theus and Joey Rodriguez, those guys were going to have a chip on their shoulder no matter what. Now those guys are gone and some of the guys that are here now have benefited from the success on the court that some of the guys had before them. It's important for our current players to understand what brought us that success and add that underdog mentality. It's easier to instill that in certain groups than it is in others. This is a team we're still working on that with.
CBSSports.com: One thing that's different about this team versus the past two at VCU is you have the ability to play both big and small. How big is that going to be in conference play moving forward?
Smart:I think it helps us depending on who we play against. What some teams do is they realize that we're playing small, so they play small. We think that's an advantage to us because we're used to playing that way. But there are games where you need more beef, more muscle in there. You need to rebound better. You need to deal with a guy that's really hurting you around the basket. We've got some depth now that can help with that.
CBSSports.com: You said before the season that one of the keys for your team was getting better in the half court offensively. How would you assess that progress through 14 games?
Smart: It's a work in progress. We've gotten a lot of good shots. We've been sporadic in knocking them down. I think we've gotten better. Our point guards have done a better job of finding their teammates and getting us into offense.
CBSSports.com: You mention your point guards. How different is the dynamic with Briante Weber and JeQuan Lewis playing more together in the back court?
Smart:Those guys can play with a lot of energy and a lot of quickness on the defensive end. I thought Briante (Weber) played the best defensive game he's ever played at VCU against Boston College. We like them on the floor together. They have great quickness and they can push the ball and attack. JeQuan can push the ball and Briante can get into the lane and create shots for guys. It just gives us a lot of depth. As you know, we like playing a lot of guards. The more guys we can have playing and contributing to our team, the better it is.
CBSSports.com: In addition to your point guard play, having effective half court offense, especially if your outside shooting is still a work in progress, is predicated on getting consistent offense in the paint. How much is Juvonte Reddic directly related to that?
Smart:Well, he and Treveon Graham are guys we want to get the ball to as the clock winds down to finish plays off. Treveon has been the guy that we've really looked towards in that regard early on. Troy Daniels was terrific for us in that area last year and he's still doing it. He's averaging six-made three-point shots a game in the D-League.
CBSSports.com: Is this is the deepest team you've had at VCU?
Smart: I think so, probably either this team or the 2011 team that went to the Final Four. If we can stay consistently bought into roles -- particularly guys that are seven through eleven in our rotation --- and their attitudes still remain positive, then this will be the deepest team.