Following yet another NCAA Tournament appearance, Shaka Smart is now prohibitive favorite to win Atlantic 10 with VCU. (Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News)
Two years ago, they were the little engine that could, a mid-major that required a First Four game to advance in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed, and ultimately captured the hearts of the nation on their way to the Final Four. They have not been back in the national semifinals since, but Virginia Commonwealth University's legend and stature in the national landscape has grown even bigger, and the target on the Rams' backs in the Atlantic 10 this season has expanded by the same margin.
To prepare for the competition, head coach Shaka Smart released this year's nonconference schedule, a 15-game slate that includes a trip to Puerto Rico and two neutral site matchups against teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Here's a detailed breakdown of each team to match up with Smart's patented "Havoc" defense:
Friday, November 8th vs. Illinois State: Dan Muller and the Redbirds now begin life without Jackie Carmichael and Tyler Brown, and it will be baptism by fire for Illinois State due to their having to open at the Siegel Center, site of arguably one of the best homecourt advantages anywhere in college basketball. Illinois State loses all of their top six scorers from last season, which leaves sophomore guards Nick Zeisloft and Kaza Keane to grow up quickly after a rookie season that saw Keane average over three assists per game off the bench.
Tuesday, November 12th at Virginia: Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett gets the services of senior swingman and potential first team all-ACC pick Joe Harris for one more year, a plus against VCU's freakish athleticism. Senior forward Akil Mitchell should be a double-double per night player, and will match up well inside against Juvonte Reddic. Pay close attention to 6-8 sophomore Evan Nolte, (no relation to Nick) who shot 39 percent from three-point range as a freshman.
Saturday, November 16th vs. Winthrop: The Eagles had just two players average more than ten points per game last season, but both of them are back in the form of junior guard Derrick Henry and senior swingman Joab Jerome. At just 5-10, junior Andre Smith makes the motor run as the point guard on this backcourt-oriented Winthrop squad, but he is also a proficient shooter, as his 38 percent clip from three-point range (45 percent in conference play) led the Eagles by a wide margin.
Thursday, November 21st: The Rams' first of three games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off comes against a Florida State team they have not seen since the Rams defeated the Seminoles in the Sweet 16 two years ago just before slaying the giant in consensus national championship pick Kansas two days later. Michael Snaer has graduated, but Leonard Hamilton still has the length and underrated explosiveness of Okaro White for one more year in Tallahassee. Sophomore shooting specialist Devon Bookert also returns after a rookie season that saw the Alaskan shoot a blistering 53 percent from beyond the arc. Florida State also has highly touted freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes coming to join a sleeper pick in the ACC, and their matchup with the Rams features an intriguing subplot after Terrance Shannon transferred to VCU, where he will be eligible immediately.
Friday, November 22nd and Sunday, November 24th: TBD
Friday, November 29th vs. Northeastern: This game has the potential to be a rematch depending on what happens in Puerto Rico, as Bill Coen's Huskies are also competing in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Regardless, Northeastern will be tested significantly this season after losing Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee to graduation after winning the CAA regular season championship and reaching the National Invitation Tournament. However, junior wings Quincy Ford and Reggie Spencer; who averaged a combined 22 points per game, return, and they get a new running mate up front with the arrival of Saint Francis University expatriate Scott Eatherton, once a Most Improved Player in the Northeast Conference.
Sunday, December 1st at Belmont: Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson have graduated, leaving longtime head coach Rick Byrd to once again reload at the helm of one of the best mid-majors in the nation. This year's incarnation of the Bruins is not short on talent, though, and senior wing J.J. Mann will prove that as he increases his productivity from the 10.5 points per game and 39 percent form from three-point range he averaged as a junior last year. Blake Jenkins is also back to provide more length from his position as a 6-7 swingman, and both he and Mann will also play huge roles as team leaders to a younger Belmont squad than we have seen in years past.
Thursday, December 5th vs. Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels return leading scorer Glenn Cosey, a six-foot point guard from Flint, Michigan who could pass for a poor man's Mateen Cleaves with his ball control and scoring ability, from a 25-win team last season. His backcourt running mate Corey Walden also returns for his junior campaign to a team that shot 36 percent from three-point range last season, and will try to engage the Rams in a shootout beyond the arc. However, leading rebounder Eric Stutz (4.7 rebounds per game last season) will need to have a career game if Eastern Kentucky has any hopes of winning the battle of the boards against VCU.
Sunday, December 8th vs. Old Dominion: Some may consider a Sunday tipoff against the Rams' archrival to be somewhat of a sacrilege, but former Virginia and American coach Jeff Jones will no doubt improve the Monarchs from a disastrous 5-25 campaign that cost Blaine Taylor his job as Old Dominion now moves to Conference USA from the Colonial Athletic Association. Junior guard Dimitri Batten is the team's top returning scorer, and sophomore point guard Keenan Palmore could be one of C-USA's assist leaders with an improved handle this year. A major concern for the Monarchs will be size, as wings Richard Ross and Nick Wright will be playing out of position against a much more physical and stronger Ram frontcourt.
Saturday, December 14th at Northern Iowa: Ben Jacobson and the Panthers could be one of the better teams in the Missouri Valley, especially now with Creighton out of the picture. Despite losing guard Anthony James, Northern Iowa retains juniors Seth Tuttle (56 percent field goal percentage) and Deon Mitchell (3.6 assists per game) as they look to return to the NCAA Tournament. Keep a close eye on sophomore Matt Bohannon, an outside shooting extraordinaire who shot 39 percent from three last season, and 6-9 freshman Bennett Koch, who will attempt to create his own legacy while living up to the high standards set at UNI by his older brothers Adam and Jake.
Tuesday, December 17th vs. Wofford: We'll introduce Wofford with a nugget for VCU radio color commentator Mike Litos to mention in his comprehensive research and previews this season: The Spartanburg, South Carolina institution is one of only three schools in the nation (Boston University and St. Francis College being the other two) with the Terriers as its nickname. Guards Karl Cochran and Spencer Collins will lead Wofford in the backcourt while junior forward Lee Skinner takes the next step in potentially becoming a double-double per night player. The Terriers also have a point guard who could be a candidate for one of the best names in college basketball, that being Australian import Indiana Faithfull, who enters his junior season on the heels of averaging 3.5 assists per game as a sophomore.
Saturday, December 21st vs. Virginia Tech: The Hokies lose the services of Erick Green, who was among the top scorers in the nation, but senior swingman Jarell Eddie remains and will now have to become the 1994-95 Scottie Pippen after being the early '90s Pippen to Green's Michael Jordan. Forwards Cadarian Raines and C.J. Barksdale will no doubt see their numbers improve with additional minutes, but the road to redemption will seem long and winding for the first few months during James Johnson's second season in Blacksburg, especially in this matchup at the Richmond Coliseum, where VCU will have a de facto homecourt advantage they honed to perfection in many CAA Tournaments past.
Saturday, December 28th vs. Boston College: VCU invades the Barclays Center once again for this meeting with Steve Donahue and the Eagles, and the Rams will have the task of stopping the man who could very well be a contender for ACC Player of the Year honors in sophomore Olivier Hanlan, who averaged over 15 points per game while earning ACC Freshman of the Year honors last season. Ryan Anderson, a 6-9 junior forward, will leave an impression early and often for those who have yet to see him, as he is one of th best rebounders in the nation. Boston College also welcomes the services of Alex Dragicevich, a shooting guard who sat out last season after transferring from Notre Dame. In addition, Joe Rahon and Lonnie Jackson give BC some of the best guard depth in the ACC, and certainly among the best that VCU will face this year.
Friday, January 3rd vs. Stony Brook: VCU closes its nonconference campaign by hosting one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball, that being the America East favorite Seawolves, who won a school record 25 games last season in a year that saw the program win its first postseason game at the Division I level. Led by head coach Steve Pikiell, a former Jim Calhoun assistant who ranks as one of the classiest and most respectful leaders of any team anywhere, Stony Brook will have the unenviable task of replacing do-it-all forward Tommy Brenton, who graduated and is now playing in Japan. However, sophomore power forward Jameel Warney will only expand his already massive skill set while senior guards Anthony Jackson and Dave Coley return to anchor a backcourt that will only enhance the skills of sophomore Carson "Tre" Puriefoy, who should have a breakout campaign this year.