NEW YORK — Mention VCU the last six years and two words immediately came to mind: Shaka and havoc.
Coach Shaka Smart has since left the Rams for Texas. The program was known for its style of play — havoc for 40 minutes, keeping the game at a frenetic pace with a full-court press.
Now, Will Wade is running things for VCU. He was a former assistant to Smart and was the head coach at Chattanooga the last two seasons. He may not have a catchy first name, but he will keep the style that had the Rams in the last five NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Final Four in 2011.
“I was an assistant there, so it makes it a little bit easier. I have a sense of the land, a lay of the land,” Wade said Tuesday at the Atlantic 10’s media day at Barclays Center. “I’m not Shaka. I worked with him and I’m friends with him, but I’m not him. The system will remain similar. There will be some tweaks, but you can’t worry about what people think or try to be him. Just do the best job you can.”
VCU, which was picked fifth in the 14-team preseason poll, is the defending conference tournament champion. The Rams lost two quality players in Treveon Graham and Briante Weber, but they have over 60 percent of their scoring back and over 65 percent of their rebounding.
Wade spoke of keeping VCU’s “brand” alive, so expect a lot more havoc this season. He said his former boss won’t be far away.
“Shaka and I speak — not as much since practice started, but we still talk,” Wade said. “Once the season starts we have always spoken quite a bit during the season. I expect that will continue, and he will provide some insight into some of my guys.”
Dayton was ranked on the top of the preseason poll, receiving 12 first-place votes, four more than Rhode Island. Davidson, which won the regular-season title in its first year in the conference, was third with six first-place votes, while George Washington received the other first-place vote.
VCU was fifth in the annual poll of the conference’s coaches and selected media, followed by Richmond, Saint Joseph’s, St. Bonaventure, La Salle and Massachusetts. The last four teams were Duquesne, Saint Louis, George Mason and Fordham.
Dayton coach Archie Miller said he never bothers to even look at preseason polls.
“Look at Davidson last year as proof nobody really knows what’s going on right now,” Miller said, referring to Davidson being picked 12th last year. “What can happen during the course of a season, a team gets some momentum, and we’ve had that happen. But we’re looking to develop some chemistry and see where we are at the end of the season.”
Danny Hurley is starting his fourth season at Rhode Island, and this team is projected to make the NCAA Tournament. If that’s to happen, the Rams will need a lot from their two first-team preseason picks, juniors Hassan Martin and E.C. Matthews.
“When we recruited them we expected them to reach this level,” Hurley said. “They have been on an amazing two-year run, and now it’s time for them to step up and give great play and great leadership.”
Joining Martin and Matthews on the first team, which is made up of all juniors, are Jack Gibbs of Davidson, Jordan Price of La Salle and DeAndre’ Bembry of Saint Joseph’s.
Ward is joined by Fordham’s Jeff Neubauer and George Mason’s Dave Paulsen as the first-year coaches in the conference.
Neubauer came to Fordham after 10 seasons at Eastern Kentucky that featured two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“New York’s been fun. I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said. “I think we have a very aggressive style, a fun style to play. So young people are going to be attracted by that.”
Paulsen was the coach at Bucknell for the last seven seasons, and he took the Bison to the NCAA Tournament twice. He won a Division III national championship at Williams in 2003.
“It’s starting from scratch, absolutely,” he said. “In some ways that’s really exciting because I can put my imprint on this program and shape the direction it’s going, and there aren’t any necessarily built-in obstacles to it. You’re doing everything and I kind of have to have the final say on everything.”