New-look VCU proves last year's amazing run was no fluke

by | Senior College Basketball Blogger

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Shaka Smart composed himself a split second before returning to form as a composed, gracious coach. Just prior to that, he was throwing his fist downward in exultation, whipping it through the air like he had a penny in a piggybank he couldn't shake free.

Then he flexed his sinewy frame. His 12th-seeded, 29-6 Rams having just defeated No. 5 Wichita State and moved on to the Round of 32, Smart couldn't help but enjoy his latest huge win and very public update to his resume. (Illinois becomes more and more in love/desperate by the minute.) The game was over. Smart and the Rams have arrived again: Virginia Commonwealth 62, Wichita State 59.

Smart shook Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall's hand in the post-game greeting line. He breezed back to the locker room on the momentum of another win where the Rams were the lower seed. (In the 2012 tournament, Smart's team was the first to break the boring streak of all higher seeds winning.) Once they were there, the team took turns signing the board. What's the board? It's the visual representation of this team's ambition. "We're signing up," freshman Treveon Graham said. "We make sure everyone's ready for the next game. You signed it, you're ready."

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This Rams team embodies a lot of themes. Symbolism is one of them. Keen observers will note that Smart's outfit Thursday night was a repeat. Superstition? Nah, just going with a good thing because, hey, why not have a little bit of familiarity for a team trying to do this again with a new cast of impact players.

"I wore this exact same outfit when we played Wichita State in the BracketBusters last year, and when we played Kansas in the Elite Eight," Smart said. "We've got all these pictures around of the Kansas game, so I knew I wore this then. But when I went back and looked at the tape of the Wichita State game from last year, I said, 'You know, that's the Kansas outfit.' So I'm thinking, Kansas was a big win. That was a big win at Wichita State. Let's roll with it again. "We really believe in visualizing. We gave all the guys a laminated copy of our conference tournament bracket with VCU advancing all the way. And then we did a big board with the same [Colonial Athletic Conference] bracket with VCU advancing all the way and had them sign it after each game."

As they prepped for this game, they had the personal brackets to stow away in their pockets or backpacks or tape to their hotel room bathroom mirror. But there was no big bracket. The team wanted to sign up again. Specifically, senior Brad Burgess -- the man who's started more games in his college career than any player in Division I history -- wanted another big board for the team to tape in its locker room. He demanded it. He got it.

"We want to be aggressive, confident and loose," Smart said. "It's different from last year in that we have a different cast of characters. We don't have as many senior leaders. Last year, Joey [Rodriguez] and Brandon [Rozzell], they thought we could beat the Lakers. So, we just had, like, super swag because of those games. This year, we don't have that same ridiculous confidence. The mental part of the prep was very important."

VCU: the perfect, lovable spoilers. But can something -- or some team -- this treasured spoil anything except the formality of bracket prognostication? Which college basketball fans aren't rooting for this team again?

And this wasn't an upset, either. VCU's considered a synonym to March. That's what one year and one unfathomable Final Four run will do for a team. And the Rams are back. They got the auto bid from the CAA and have won all but one game since Jan. 8. They are hot. See, you recognize Smart, know the name VCU ... but you don't know who these players are. Most of them weren't factors on the Final Four team from 2011. Burgess was, but not really anyone else. Different team, different identity, different strengths, different characteristics altogether.

That's what makes Smart a good coach coveted by almost any major program that has or will have a job opening. All you have to do is brand your team as a winner. Get beyond plucky and upstart -- get feared. Be a target. That's what VCU is.

The Rams not only win in massive batches; they aren't prone to grip in close games. Smart's team is 8-2 in games decided by four points or less. Thursday's game had some doubt. It was arguably the best contest of the day across the country. After leading by 13 with 13:30 to go, Wichita State played itself all the way back into a lead, taking a 59-57 advantage on a Toure' Murry 3-point with 2:05 remaining. Thirty-two seconds later, Burgess sank a trey to give VCU a lead it would never relinquish again.

Murry's basket was the Shockers' last. They had a chance to send the game into overtime on a broken play that saw 7-footer Garrett Stutz take a 3-pointer with two seconds left. Not the shot Marshall wanted, but just the shot the Rams panicked Wichita State into taking.

Fifty-nine points. The Shockers average 77.7 per game, 15th-best in the country. That's what this VCU team does to you, turning you over 27.4 percent of the time -- the best in college basketball.

"We're 40 minutes from getting to the Sweet 16," Smart said. "That's our goal right now."

Not a Final Four -- a Sweet 16, for now. This team's biggest advantage has not been getting ahead of itself. Take the moment, embrace it, which is happening for this program for the second year in a row. The VCU story isn't resurrected -- it's continuing. And no matter if a win or loss comes Saturday, Smart's proven his team's run in 2011 was not a fluke.


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