RICHMOND | Coach Shaka Smart, VCU and the Rams’ “havoc” style of play are back in the national spotlight.
This year’s Rams have used the same intense defensive pressure that carried them to the 2011 Final Four to break into the Top 25 for the first time in 28 years.
The No. 22 Rams rode their 94-foot style of constant pressure to take out five schools from the major BCS conferences in their stunning postseason run two years ago. Now they’ve won 11 straight and are ranked for the first time since 1984-85.
The Rams (14-3, 2-0 Atlantic 10) host St. Joseph’s, the league’s preseason favorite, Thursday night.
The Hawks (9-5, 1-1) face a stiff test against the Rams’ pressure, likely in front of another sellout crowd at the Siegel Center. Still, Smart’s team also has its own new challenge to address.
“I can guarantee you when we play a ranked team, we use that as motivation. We use any attention they’re getting as motivation, so we’ve got to understand that people are going to do that with us now,” Smart said, putting the onus on his team to ignore the plaudits and remember how it got there.
“We have to make sure we’re focused on what’s going to bring us success moving forward,” Smart said. “For our guys, it’s a test of their maturity and their focus and for us as a program. It’s a test of how good can we be when everyone’s watching and when there are a lot of people saying good things about us.”
It has been hard not to say good things about the Rams.
The winning streak began after a three-point loss to No. 17 Missouri in the Bahamas. That loss followed a nine-point setback against No. 3 Duke a day earlier. Nine of the 11 victories have come by double digits, including a 73-54 blowout of Alabama.
With their constant defensive pressure, the Rams lead all Division 1 men’s teams in steals, averaging 13.2 per game. Sophomore Briante Weber leads the nation with 3.59 per game; senior Darius Theus is 10th, averaging 2.69.
On offense, senior Troy Daniels in No. 1 in 3-pointers made per game, averaging 4.12.
Anthony Grant, who coached VCU for three seasons before leaving for Alabama, got a very warm welcome when he brought the Crimson Tide to the Siegel Center on Dec. 15 — at least until the game started.
After Alabama went ahead 2-0, VCU scored 26 of the next 31 points.
“With the intensity that they play [with] on the defensive end, they’re as good as any team that we’ve seen,” he said after his team committed 18 turnovers, 13 by halftime.
“They’re awfully good.”