Illinois St.-VCU Preview

The Associated Press

VCU took the college basketball world by storm with a Final Four appearance in 2011.

Many believe Shaka Smart's team is even better this season.

Opening in the Top 25 for the first time in school history, the 14th-ranked Rams get started against an inexperienced Illinois State squad Friday night.

VCU is one of only seven schools with at least one NCAA tournament win in the last three seasons, and many prognosticators have pegged the school to win the Atlantic 10 and make some more noise in the NCAAs.

"We've always had high expectations within our program and we want to be at a place that there is high expectations for us and that's the way VCU is," Smart told the school's official website. "I think it says a lot about our returning players, but it really doesn't change much in terms of our approach. The bottom line is that everyone starts the year 0-0."

The Rams return three of the top four scorers from a team that finished 27-9 last season and beat Akron in the tournament before losing to Michigan.

Juvonte Reddic is the player most opposing teams - and NBA scouts - will have their eyes on. The 6-foot-9 senior averaged 14.6 points and 56.9 percent shooting along with a team-best 8.1 rebounds last season, and he's expected to have an increased presence in the paint.

Treveon Graham will also demand the attention of opposing teams after averaging a team-best 15.1 points in 2012-13.

Smart is hoping Graham and Reddic, who were both named to the preseason all-conference team, can lead the Rams in the early portion of the season as the team tries to establish its identity.

"The No. 1 key is improvement," Smart said. "The teams that have been the most successful at VCU are the teams that have really improved from October to November, November to December and so on. That's what we're looking for from all of our guys but particularly the new guys that just don't know what VCU basketball is all about."

The newcomers to the system include Jordan Burgess, the brother of former VCU star Bradford Burgess, Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon and freshman Mo Alie-Cox.

Also in the mix for minutes are returning guards Rob Brandenberg and Briante Weber, who ranked sixth in the nation in steals last season with 2.7 per game.

"The rotation and chemistry and that stuff is still to be worked out," Smart.

While Smart is still ironing out his offense will look, there is little question of how VCU will play defensively.

Under Smart, VCU has been known for relentless defense, an aggressive style he calls "havoc." The Rams led all schools last season with 11.7 steals per game, and their plus-8.0 turnover margin was also the nation's best.

As VCU's defense gives most teams fits, it would seem a young Illinois State team could have an even tougher time breaking the press.

Eight of the Redbirds' 12 players are freshmen or sophomores, and only Nick Zeisloft and Kaza Keane have any Division I experience. Zeisloft averaged 4.5 points and made one start for an Illinois State team that went 18-15 last season, while Keane averaged 2.7 points and made 10 starts.

Although Illinois State seems extremely raw, Smart is cautious.

"One of the biggest challenges is that they've got so many new players," he said. "We don't know a whole lot about them because they've got so many new players from a personnel standpoint."

VCU leads the all-time series 3-1, with a 74-72 win in the last meeting in 1995. Illinois State coach Dan Muller was a sophomore for the Redbirds in that contest, scoring a game-high 19 points.

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