VCU's beatdown of Butler a showing of what the A-10 gained, will lose
This was as anticipated a matchup as any in Atlantic 10 regular-season history, with multiple national media outlets in attendance and no shortage of hype. It wasn't even for first place, but it involved two ranked teams and, more importantly, Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart. This game, though, didn't wind up about Boy Wonder or the other young, rising star in the profession.
RICHMOND, Va. -- Brad vs. Shaka. Two coaches forever linked by Final Four appearances and the ability to spurn the hefty payday in favor of remaining at their current institution.
This was as anticipated a matchup as any in Atlantic 10 regular-season history, with multiple national media outlets in attendance and no shortage of hype. It wasn't even for first place, but it involved two ranked teams, and more importantly, Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart.
This game, though, didn't wind up about Boy Wonder or the other young, rising star in the profession.
It was all about VCU.
"All the talk before the game was about two great, young coaches," Rams leader Darius Theus said after the one-sided win. "If that's what they wanted to talk about, that's fine. Hopefully, now they'll talk about us."
This wasn't just any ordinary victory, either. It was a thrashing, 20-plus at the break and 84-52 when the final buzzer sounded. Stevens had coached in 207 games, including a pair of national title contests, and had never been beaten into submission like this. This wasn't about revenge. VCU's holdovers from the 2011 national semifinal loss to Butler made that clear -- as did Smart.
But it was about making a point.
Smart, Theus and the rest of the team have been paying attention to the realignment talk. They are well aware of the reports that Butler and Xavier are leaving to join the Catholic Seven or Basketball Seven -- or whatever you want to call the seven teams that split off from the Big East to form their own league. They are also cognizant of the fact that Dayton and Saint Louis have also been rumored to be in the mix for additional spots, should they pluck more schools out of the A-10.
VCU? It's been a virtual afterthought.
"We can still change their minds," Theus said with a smile.
The new Big East should look long and hard at VCU. This is a program with avid fans that have filled up the 7,700-seat facility 34 consecutive times, boasts one of the top young coaches in the nation and a plays a style that's about as entertaining as any.
"The best thing we can do is win games," Smart said before the game about the league uncertainty.
VCU has done that 23 times this season and is 11-3 in its inaugural season in the A-10 after coming from the CAA. This was an old-fashioned shellacking, a mismatch in which VCU was able to overwhelm the Bulldogs with its athleticism and pressure. The game was literally over when the two teams went into the break at the half, but this was just one contest. It would be a shame if this winds up being the only time these two guys meet in a conference matchup, but it's certainly the way it looks right now.
Stevens was frustrated after the loss. In fact, I've never seen him move quite as quickly out of the media room.
"We laid an egg," Stevens said.
VCU is the superior team, though. Butler has had its share of impressive wins this season, but this could be Stevens' most impressive regular-season coaching job. There are no Gordon Haywards, Shelvin Macks or even Matt Howards in this group -- and he's no longer feasting on Horizon League cupcakes. There was no one to handle the Rams' vaunted press.
"Their speed is ludicrous," Stevens added.
Stevens and Smart shook hands before the game and spoke for a minute just before the rout began. There was nothing phony, a genuine respect for two coaches who first met years ago when they were assistants at Butler and Akron. Back then, it was just the run-of-the-mill conversation, but it all changed when the pair met with a chance to play UConn in the title game on the line in 2011. Since, the two have become close -- even having lunch one afternoon in New Orleans last April at the Final Four.
"We walked in, and everyone started saying 'There's Shaka,'" Stevens said. "I just blended in. I loved it."
But these two guys had plenty to talk about. Few can relate to their experiences over the last couple of years. Both young coaches, Midwesterners and former Division III players who rose to stardom from virtual obscurity. Both with Final Four appearances on their resume. Both who have turned down numerous high-major jobs. Smart has given NC State, Missouri, Miami and Georgia Tech -- according to sources -- The Heisman. Stevens has been approached by just about every high-major school with an opening over the past two offseasons -- and opted to remain at Butler.
"There's been a lot of shared experiences," Stevens said.
"We can compare notes," added Smart. "It's flattering to even be mentioned in the same sentence as him. He's been to two national title games."
My seat at the Siegal Center was almost directly behind where Smart stood jumping around in the coaches box -- and right next to A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade. This should have been a day in which she and the rest of the league were celebrating a Shaka vs. Brad matchup, pounding their chests with what they had put together. Instead, she was busy answering questions before the game on the status of her league.
Stevens' stint in the A-10 certainly looks as though it'll be brief, maybe only a single campaign. As for Smart and VCU?
"We're trying to prove we belong," Theus said.
The rout over Boy Wonder and Butler was one way to prove it.
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