Richmond, VA (SportsNetwork.com) - Having secured their first preseason Top-25 ranking ever, the 14th-ranked VCU Rams open the 2013-14 season on Friday evening against the visiting Illinois State Redbirds.
Illinois State calls the Missouri Valley Conference home, and the team is coming off a season in which it went 18-15 overall and 8-10 against league foes. The Redbirds won only two of their final seven games of 2012-13, so they are hoping to start this new campaign off with a bang.
Under Shaka Smart, VCU has reached heights never before seen at the school, and the Rams made their first season as a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference in 2012-13 a memorable one as they went 27-9, which included a 12-4 league ledger. They lost to Saint Louis in the A-10 Tournament title tilt, before splitting a pair of games in the NCAA Tournament.
VCU leads the all-time series with ISU, 3-1, and the Rams won the last meeting back in 1995.
Illinois State enters this season of uncertainty with an entirely new starting five, and there are no seniors on the current roster. Former standouts Tyler Brown (18.1 ppg) and Jackie Carmichael (17.4 ppg) have moved on, and with so many unknowns, coach Dan Muller will likely need some of his junior college transfers to produce immediately for the Redbirds to have any shot of keeping their heads above water during the first several weeks. It was believed that junior Daishon Knight was going to win the starting point guard job, but he was suspended indefinitely in September due to some legal issue. Other transfers to keep an eye on include Michael Middlebrooks, Zach Lofton and Bobby Hunter, as well 6-foot-7 freshman MiKyle McIntosh. In the end, a lack of consistency on offense will likely to be the reason the Redbirds struggle, both out of conference and once MVC play rolls around.
Fancying themselves a stingy defensive team, the Rams have been among the best in the country recently at keeping the opposition at bay. They also produce at the offensive end, so it's no surprise that they continue to excel as just about every move Smart makes is ... well, a smart one. VCU returns only six players from last season's successful club, but three happen to be double- digit scorers Treveon Graham (15.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Juvonte Reddic (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Rob Brandenberg (10.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg). Rounding out the first five are expected to be guard Briante Weber and forward Terrance Shannon. The Rams are one of the favorites to win the A-10 championship this season, and for good reason, and it's imperative that they win the games they're supposed to, starting with his one.