By HANK KURZ Jr.
AP Sports Writer
RICHMOND, Va. - 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 they 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 3-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," Grant said.
Like it did in the Final Four run, it's the Rams' defense that makes everything else go.
"You can see what we do on film, but it's different when you're out there playing against it. People are going to prepare for it, but you've still got to deal with that havoc," Theus said. "... We want to get the other team tired, and we may be tired, too, but we want to push them to their limit."
A master motivator, Smart used the Rams' much-criticized inclusion in the 2011 NCAA tournament field to help fuel their run to the Final Four, showing his team clips of so-called "experts" counting them out.
He now uses the banner marking that season to reinforce the identity that can get them back.
"That's the only time when we reference the Final Four," Smart said. "`Hey guys. This is what goes into winning and if we do what goes into winning.' Then I'll point at the banner and say, `That's what we can do.'"
It helps to have Theus and Daniels, who both played with that team, still around.
"I want that as bad as I want my last breath," Daniels said. "Me and Darius talk about it every single day, but we have to focus on the A-10. We have to get through this, but it would be a great feeling."
Theus averaged 15 minutes per game on that team, and Daniels 4.7 minutes.
"That year was very special, but it would mean a lot more if we could do it this year because our role is much bigger," Theus said. "It would be amazing. Like Troy said, we talk about it all the time, just to get back to that Final Four. That was the best time of my life. I would love to get back there."