It’s amazing to think that a few weeks ago on Selection Sunday, many people, with the exception of those associated with Virginia Commonwealth University, didn’t even think the Rams deserved to be a part of the NCAA tournament. Some experts were upset and said teams like Colorado and Virginia Tech had more impressive resumes than VCU and were more deserving of a spot in the field of 68. Well, after their 10-point win against Kansas last Sunday, I bet most of those naysayers are eating their words right about now.
VCU hasn’t just won games in this tournament against good teams. They have absolutely dominated some of the best teams in the country, sometimes doing it with such ease that it’s hard to believe they barely made the tournament in the first place. The Rams were one of the last teams to make the tournament and, as a result, played USC in the First Four game to earn a chance at facing Georgetown in the second round. They handled USC easily, winning 59-46, and then crushed an ailing Georgetown team, 74-56.
After the 18-point blowout of the Hoyas, most people probably thought VCU’s luck would run out against a very solid Purdue team that featured two of the Big Ten’s best players in JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Well, they were wrong. Once again, the Rams came out on fire and put up 94 points on the Boilermakers on their way to a 94-76 victory. Next up was a match up against one of the best defenses in the country in Florida State. Even though VCU trailed late, they came up with some magic after Bradford Burgess was able to slip away from Florida State’s Derwin Kitchen for the game-winning lay-up in overtime giving the Rams a 72-71 victory and a shot at Kansas in the Elite Eight.
It seemed as if VCU was facing quite an uphill climb before taking on a 37-2 Jayhawk team that was cruising right along in the tournament up to that point. After spotting Kansas the first six points of the game, the Rams started shooting lights out from beyond the arc and completely took the game over, leading by as many as 18 points. The Jayhawks made a concerted effort to get back in the game, but could never take back the lead and ended up losing 71-61, giving VCU their first ever Final Four appearance.
You have to give credit where credit is due and VCU head coach Shaka Smart sure deserves it considering his team lost four of their last five regular season games and were in major jeopardy of not making the NCAA tournament at all. But instead of dwelling on those losses, he literally burned the February calendar and convinced his team that March was the beginning of an entirely new season. Smart must have made quite an impression with his guys because they have won seven of eight games in the month of March including their improbable run to the Final Four.
But the success of VCU as a basketball program can be traced back much further than Smart. Former VCU head coach and current Alabama coach, Anthony Grant, can be thanked for putting together a talented team that compiled a 76-25 record and two NCAA tournament appearances while he was there. Grant was responsible for putting VCU back on the map and when he decided to leave for Alabama, some of his players were extremely upset including his point guard and emotional leader, Joey Rodriguez. Rodriguez seriously considered leaving VCU when Grant took the Alabama job, but decided to stay after much debate.
Even though Grant built this VCU team, Smart has refined it. He has taken a team full of talent, a team that most people thought shouldn’t even have been in the NCAA tournament, and guided them to an improbable run to the Final Four. There can be a number of reasons for VCU’s success in the NCAA tournament this season, from Grant’s recruiting to Smart’s master motivational skills. But whatever the reason, VCU has proved they are for real and they aren’t going down without a fight.
Submitted by Steve Giles