VCU Seeks to Make Claim as Virginia’s Best Program SaturdayPosted by Lathan Wells on December 21st, 2013
The VCU Rams entered the 2013-14 season with the school’s highest preseason rankings in school history (#14 in the Associated Press poll, #15 in the USA Today/Coaches poll) and arguably coach Shaka Smart’s best team since he took over the program in 2009. The Rams have hit some early stumbling blocks with losses to Florida State, Georgetown and Northern Iowa, putting them outside of the rankings altogether at this point. The team is adjusting to new foul rules that often hamper it’s ability to run its vaunted Havoc defense, and they have not been consistently effective from long range. But this weekend’s upcoming Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic in Richmond gives VCU an opportunity to firmly stake its claim to a title they arguably have yet to formally hold — the best basketball school in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Since Smart took over, the Rams have been the main school in the headlines when it comes to Virginia college basketball. The magical run to the Final Four in 2011, considered one of the greatest Cinderella runs of all-time in the NCAA Tournament, pushed them to the forefront of the basketball scene. But staying power is the only way to hold the title of the state’s best hoops school, and it’s that consistent success Smart and the Rams have enjoyed in the years following that makes it clear they are Virginia’s foremost basketball program. NCAA bids were achieved again in 2011-12 and 2012-13, where each year VCU had the misfortune of meeting one of the best teams in the country and getting knocked out in the third round (a rising Indiana displaced them in 2011-12; eventual national runner-up Michigan did so last year). To then come into this year with the enormous expectations that were placed upon it shows that the VCU program is now a major player on the national scene.
This year has offered two great opportunities for the Rams to pronounce themselves the best of Virginia. The first came in a prime time match-up with then-25th ranked Virginia in early November, a game they won in Charlottesville with a Treveon Graham three-pointer. The second comes today, when they will square off with Virginia Tech for the first time since both schools were members of the Metro Conference (each left in 1995). While the Hokies are not a powerhouse by any stretch, they are off to a strong start in head coach James Johnson’s second season and belong to one of the preeminent hoops conferences in the nation. If VCU can top both Virginia and Virginia Tech this season, it’s difficult to argue against the notion that they’ve taken over the mantle of the best basketball school in the state. They’ll have two conference match-ups with rival Richmond in the Atlantic 10 this year, but beating the state’s two power conference schools is paramount for the program’s image.
Virginia has been on the outside looking in come NCAA Tournament time for most of the last few seasons (once in the previous four years), and Tony Bennett’s plodding offense is often a recruiting deterrent. Virginia Tech enjoyed several years of moderate success under Seth Greenberg, but most ended in NIT berths rather than invitations to the Big Dance; Johnson’s first year in Blacksburg was a disaster, and not much is expected of his squad this year either as he rebuilds the program. George Mason and Old Dominion have sprung NCAA Tournament upsets in past seasons — including an equally amazing Final Four run by Mason in 2006 — but neither has become a consistent national presence like VCU has under Smart. While it seems that the other Virginia squads are floundering (even UVA, which entered with lofty preseason expectations for the first time in a number of years, has dropped out of the conversation with a rough non-conference performance), VCU appears to be surging.
Smart has the perfect situation at his disposal. He’s a big-name coach and media darling who has spurned offers from bigger schools like USC and Illinois in seasons past to sign an extension with the school who gave him his first head coaching shot. He operates in a metropolitan area at a school with no football program to undercut his basketball success or steal headlines from his team, an uphill battle Virginia Tech’s basketball program has been fighting for years. His up-tempo, three-point gunning style is attractive to recruits who don’t want to play in a grind-it-out tempo like the ones employed at Virginia and Richmond. He can point to recent NBA players like Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders as proof that you can play at VCU and still have professional aspirations. Oh, and he also has that Final Four banner hanging above his home court. With a win over Virginia Tech this weekend at an event organized to bring the state schools together, coupled with the earlier win over Virginia in Charlottesville and the consistent national relevance of his program, Shaka Smart will be able to boldly and accurately proclaim his VCU Rams as Virginia’s team.