RICHMOND — The only Virginia basketball program of the last 15 years to advance in consecutive NCAA tournaments is poised to sustain that excellence in 2012-13.
"Any time we take the floor, we believe we can win," VCU coach Shaka Smart said Wednesday at the team's preseason media gabfest.
As well the Rams should.
VCU followed its electric Final Four run of 2011 with a 29-7 season that included a Colonial Athletic Association championship, NCAA conquest of Wichita State and subsequent two-point loss to Indiana.
From that squad, Smart welcomes back everyone except All-CAA guard Bradford Burgess, who started an NCAA-record 146 straight games. Add recruits such as acclaimed guard Melvin Johnson, who originally signed with Miami, and you have a team that Smart considers better than last season's at the same stage.
Whether VCU can become the first state program to win in three consecutive NCAA tournaments since Virginia in 1993-95 hinges on its offense.
Defense shouldn't be an issue. The Rams use quickness, length and depth to harass opponents from baseline-to-baseline, and last season they led the nation in steals and turnover margin.
"We have to hang our hat on our defense," Smart said. "That's what we have to be about. … Defensively, I think we can be as good, or better, in the press."
But will VCU shoot better? Last season the Rams ranked 279th nationally in shooting percentage at 41.0. They shot 40.4 percent against Indiana, 25 percent in the second half.
Treveon Graham, Burgess' heir apparent, is a candidate to improve those numbers. He averaged a modest 7.0 points last season as a freshman, but Smart believes he's capable of eclipsing Eric Maynor (1,953 points) as VCU's career-scoring leader.
"Nobody has higher expectations for him than I do," Smart said. "Sometimes I have to check myself in practice because I'm especially hard on him."
Junior forward Juvonte Reddic isn't likely to dominate the low post, but at 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, he's an efficient scorer and defender. Smart compares him to former Rams star Larry Sanders, the 15th pick of the 2010 NBA draft.
Off the bench, Johnson could provide sorely needed 3-point shooting. Teammates said he showed virtually unlimited range during the Rams' summer exhibition tour of Italy.
"Melvin's a great shooter," point guard Darius Theus said. "I feel he can help us right away. He's one of those kids who has a lot of confidence in himself, and it shows."
Entering his fourth season at VCU, Smart exudes similar confidence. Though arguably more guarded since the Final Four, he's clearly comfortable on stage, glib and engaging.
For example, Smart called the Italy trip "great from a team-bonding, a togetherness standpoint. I think our chemistry is at a very good place right now. (But) it's easy to have great chemistry when nobody's sitting on the bench. Everybody's playing a lot in practice. As soon as you get in games, that changes."
Smart is also comfortable with lofty expectations as the Rams upgrade from the CAA to the Atlantic 10 — VCU's A-10 debut is Jan. 9, at home, against Dayton.
Asked if the NCAA tournament is VCU's annual standard now, Smart answered quickly and succinctly: "Yes it is."
With fans who pack every home game and an administration committed to building a practice complex, Smart has the tools to meet, and exceed, expectations.
His ambitions are evident in a non-conference schedule that includes 2012 NCAA teams Wichita State, Alabama, Memphis and Lehigh, plus possible match-ups against Duke and/or Louisville at a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in the Bahamas.
Smart votes in USA Today's coaches' poll and included VCU among his preseason top 25.
"We have played in the last couple years, and will continue to play this year, some of the best teams and best programs in college basketball," Smart said, "and we've had some success against those teams and those programs. Any time you've done that, you use that, you have that in your back pocket to draw on as positive experience."
Even the Indiana loss qualifies. After all, the Hoosiers are No. 1 in many preseason polls, and the Rams led them by nine in the second half before falling 63-61 when Rob Brandenberg's 3-pointer at the horn missed.
"It hurt for awhile," guard Troy Daniels said of the Indiana defeat. "But now it gives us confidence."
WHO: Fla. Gulf Coast at VCU.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9