RICHMOND — This marks the first season since 1985 that VCU has cracked the Associated Press' national college basketball poll. The Rams are ranked 19th this week and own Division I's second-longest winning streak at 13 games, three behind Kansas.
But if recent history is an accurate barometer, complacency won't be an issue for coach Shaka Smart's program.
The bane of any competitive group, satisfaction didn't linger after VCU's stirring run to the 2011 Final Four. And the Rams appear to have responded similarly to last season's NCAA tournament success — they defeated Wichita State before losing to Indiana — and this year's accolades.
In short, VCU continues to play at a frantic, inspired and withering pace that often exacts a toll on opponents that can not match the Rams' depth or conditioning.
"Our plan is, over the course of a 40-minute game, to wear the other team down, to get to their legs," Smart said Tuesday at the Siegel Center. "Hopefully we practice that way more than they do. … Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. …
"(Depth) is extremely critical. I wish we had more depth than we had. Not to look into the future, but I think next year we should have a deeper team than we have now. … We … love to play 10, 11 guys, and some teams play only six or seven. Again, over the course of a 40-minute game, that's got to work to your advantage, if you get the game going fast."
Few teams have slowed the Rams (16-3, 4-0 A-10). They have failed to score 70 points only four times, and not coincidentally, they are 1-3 in those contests, falling to Wichita State, Duke and Missouri, and surviving Lehigh.
As throughout Smart's four seasons, VCU creates tempo with baseline-to-baseline defense that attempts to contest every dribble, pass and shot. The Rams led the nation in steals and turnover margin last season and lead both categories this year — they average 12.9 steals with a turnover margin of plus-8.9.
Briante Weber ranks second nationally in steals at 3.4 per game despite averaging a modest 22.2 minutes. He's among 10 Rams averaging at least 9.5 minutes, and he's not a full-time starter.
VCU's depth and balance extend to its offense. Treveon Graham averages 16.2 points to lead four double-figure scorers. Three others average between 5.8 and 6.6 points.
Most important, the Rams are shooting 45.8 percent, 60th nationally. Last season, they ranked 279th at 41.0 percent.
"I give all the credit to Coach Smart on that," senior guard Troy Daniels said of players avoiding the rear-view mirror and relishing the past. "He keeps us focused on winning games. … When we blew a team out by 20 or 30, Coach Smart came in the locker room like we lost."
Daniels couldn't recall the particular game — the Rams housed Western Kentucky, Longwood and Fairleigh Dickinson in late December — but understands the psychology.
Meanwhile, Smart appreciates this team's methodical approach, which he said contrasts sharply from the Final Four squad led by Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell.
"Joey was really big on these rivalries," Smart said when asked about Thursday's game at neighboring Richmond. "Brandon, those guys would get caught up in the drama, the buzz. Our guys are pretty business-like. 'This is our next game. Richmond's got a good team, this is what we need to do.'"
The Rams dusted the Spiders by 21 last season at the Siegel Center, but in 2011 at the Robins Center, Richmond led by as many as 30 before winning by 12.
The Spiders (12-7, 2-2) are coming off arguably their best performance this season, an 81-61 victory over Charlotte in which Darien Brothers scored 39 points and made eight 3-pointers.
Saint Joseph's is the only team to score more than 70 against VCU, but defense, depth and clutch baskets by Daniels and Darius Theus late in regulation allowed the Rams to escape 92-86 in overtime.
That game, last Thursday, was compelling television and showed why VCU's style, even on sub-par nights, will be difficult to counter come postseason.
Smart called the Hawks' 80 points in regulation "unacceptable," but such lapses from his team have been rare.
"I'm pleased, but I'm not satisfied," Smart said. "I think we've got a long way to go. We still have a lot of games to play this season. Hopefully there's more success that we'll attain, and that will test us further in terms of how we handle that. That mental edge is a big part of it, and we need to make sure we keep that."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun