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VCU Rams

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Coach: Shaka Smart. Third season, 55-21

Key player: F Bradford Burgess. The hometown hero has started every game in his collegiate career heading into his senior season (110). He's such a versatile player, coach Shaka Smart brags that he could conceivably play him at every spot on the court except center.

Biggest loss: F Jamie Skeen. VCU lost 61 percent of its scoring from last season with the graduation of four seniors. Skeen's ability to shoot the 3-point shot as a big man gave the Rams an inside-out dynamic that was hard to stop when shots were falling.

Top newcomer: G Treveon Graham. Described by Smart as 'a matchup nightmare' for opponents, the versatile 6-foot-5 guard has uncanny ability to create shots both in the paint and out. Graham, who averaged 18.3 points and 10.4 rebounds for Maryland school St. Mary's Ryken, scored a game-high 16 points in the Rams' 71-48 exhibition win over California (Pa.) last week.

Best case: The leadership of Burgess and new starting point guard Troy Daniels takes the Rams to a top-four finish in the CAA, granting them a first-round bye in the conference tournament and as good a chance as possible to make it back to the NCAA tournament.

Worst case: The loss of VCU's four seniors from last season is too tough to overcome and, with the 10th-youngest team in the nation this season, the Rams' growing pains leads to mediocre year with either a low-rung tournament in March or no postseason at all.

Key games:

VCU at Alabama, Nov. 27. VCU gets a valuable game against a team picked to finish fourth in the SEC this season by virtue of a clause in former VCU and current Alabama coach Anthony Grant's contract which dictated the school he left for would have to play a game against the Rams.

Richmond at VCU, Dec. 10. VCU had won six straight games over the Spiders before Richmond laid a 72-60 drubbing on the Rams last season. If that isn't enough motivation for Smart to get one back on VCU's city rivals, perhaps the $5,000 bonus in his new contract for beating the Spiders will be.

George Mason at VCU, Feb. 25. In a conference that's so competitive the outright winner usually isn't determined until the last few games, having George Mason play at VCU on the final game of the season should be a doozy. Last season, George Mason destroyed VCU in their only regular-season matchup before the Rams rocked the Patriots in the conference tournament semifinals and sent them crashing for the third year running.

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