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No. 23 VCU

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 (CBSSports.com Original)  
 
By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Blogger

Coach: Shaka Smart

Years at school: Four (84-28 all-time)

Best NCAA Tournament finish: Final Four (2011)

Last season's record: 29-7 (lost to Indiana in Round of 32)

Vital Info: No. 23 VCU
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Notable returnees from last season: Juvonte Reddic, Darius Theus, Troy Daniels, Rob Brandenburg, Treveon Graham, D.J. Haley

Notable losses from last season: Brad Burgess

Notable newcomer: Melvin Johnson

Projected starters: G: Treveon Graham G: Troy Daniels G: Darius Theus F: Juvonte Reddic C: D.J. Haley

Why this team will be good: Last year VCU set a school record by winning 29 games -- and it did it with almost all defense. Suffocating, frenzied, chaotic-as-hell D. At A-10 media day, Smart said his team will be "much more able offensively" but will still run the "HAVOC" defense that led it to have such a great season in 2011-12. But beyond that, look at the personnel. You can see how Brad Burgess is the only departing player of impact. And Burgess was really good. But Melvin Johnson is a top-100 player that Smart and his staff got to Richmond. (Jordan Burgess is another, but he was ruled a partial qualifier for 2012-13. Stud frosh, too.)

Talent-wise, this looks to be the best team Smart's had in his four years. There are plenty of capable guards on this team -- maybe too many, as if that's a problem. VCU will tire the hell out of teams. If it can up its effective field goal percentage from 47.6 (last year's number) even to 50 percent (an average mark), VCU will almost definitely be a top-three team in the league, as it's prognosticated.

Why this team might disappoint: The league is so good and the Rams' offense has to prove itself against a conference that had nine teams average more than a point per possession. The Atlantic 10 would be a step up from the CAA in normal circumstances, but when you factor in how six teams in this conference received first-place votes, you understand just how good the A-10 will be. And remember, VCU didn't even win the CAA last year; Drexel took it. So if the expectation level for VCU is now automatic tournament berths and at least one win (VCU "upset" Wichita State in a 12-5 matchup in Portland last March), then yes, it could disappoint. Smart knows success isn't guaranteed, and he really cautions people against thinking too highly of him or his team. He's got good players and has won in tight spots, but nothing is promised. VCU is a good program on a nice run right now. We simply don't know how it will adapt to its new league.

Also, VCU gets hurt with Jordan Burgess being a partial qualifer. Freshman Mo Alie-Cox is the other player who got hit by the NCAA, but chances are he wouldn't have even factored into VCU's plans this year.

Bottom line: VCU has become one of those teams. Those "small" teams that everyone knows and instinctively roots for. But this isn't really a small team and it's not in a small conference. It's move to the A10 signifies a shift that puts the league on the same plane as the other major conferences. What I'm most excited about is VCU being rank-worthy in the year where it makes the shift. Intrigue has followed and Smart has not taken the lure on other jobs. What college basketball has that college football doesn't is the bundle of non-major-conference teams who are "reliable," so to speak, on a yearly basis. Relevance is key. VCU's in that class with Gonzaga, Butler, Memphis, Temple ... really about half the A10 now. Golden age of prosperity is there for the taking for this program and its league.

Quote from an opposing coach in the league: "I've spent a little bit of time talking to Shaka recently and I think he [and Brad Stevens] are so respectful of the profession we're in, the league they are now in and their position in college basketball. I don't think there's a whole lot of stuff I can provide for them. They're really smart guys, they're really good people and I think they've figured it out long before I would interject any advice for them. They get it." -- Temple coach Fran Dunphy

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