|Smart (with the Rams at the 2011 Final Four in Houston) became a star during the Cinderella run. (Getty Images)|
Virginia Commonwealth University has been playing men's basketball since 1968 and done so in the 7,500-seat Verizon Wireless Arena since 1999. The school has won league titles in each of the past four decades, made the NCAA tournament in each of the past four decades and been led by accomplished coaches like Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant.
But the Rams have never sold out of season tickets.
Until this week.
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"Due to unprecedented demand, the VCU ticket office will open a waiting list for men's basketball season tickets," the school announced this week after its final season-ticket package was purchased, and it's impossible not to give Shaka Smart an immense amount of credit.
The 35-year-old head coach has created an exciting and successful brand of basketball that's taken the Rams to consecutive NCAA tournaments, including the 2011 Final Four. He's great. He's a star. And he's still at VCU despite countless more lucrative job offers from places like North Carolina State and Illinois, which speaks to VCU's commitment to Smart and his reluctance to move his young family from a known place of happiness in Richmond.
So credit Shaka for this monumental week.
But VCU's move to the Atlantic 10 also plays a role.
"Definitely helped," Smart told me by phone. "It's really contributed to the momentum we have."
Conference realignment is a mess of musical chairs with athletics programs jumping from one league to another, largely because somebody somewhere decided the grass will be greener on the other side -- but mostly because somebody somewhere decided there's more television money to be made elsewhere.
So Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC. And West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12. And though these moves make a lot of sense for a lot of reasons, it's debatable whether Missouri and West Virginia basketball fans will benefit in any way because the changes trashed tradition and eliminated rivalries without an obvious step up in competition.
Are Mizzou fans more excited about an SEC basketball schedule than a Big 12 basketball schedule? Are West Virginia fans more excited about a Big 12 basketball schedule than a Big East basketball schedule? I suppose only they can really answer those questions. But strictly in terms of basketball and the quality of the competition that'll come in and out of Columbia and Morgantown, these conference changes are lateral moves at best and possibly downgrades.
Mizzou traded Kansas, Texas and some other regional rivals for Kentucky, Florida and some other unfamiliar foes. West Virginia traded Louisville, Connecticut and some other regional rivals for Kansas, Texas and some other unfamiliar foes. Maybe it's better. Maybe it isn't. But the point remains the same -- that it's debatable whether the quality of basketball both fan bases are set to experience in their home arenas will be better than what they've previously enjoyed.
But it's not debatable at VCU.
The Rams have traded Colonial Athletic Association games with schools like Drexel, George Mason and Old Dominion for A-10 games against schools like Xavier, Temple, UMass, Saint Louis, Saint Joseph's and city rival Richmond.
VCU has gone from a league that historically struggles to place even two teams in the NCAA tournament to a league that could place five teams in this season's NCAA tournament. There is an undeniable improvement to the home schedule. And though that might result in more home losses than VCU fans -- or Butler fans, who are also watching their team move to the A-10 -- normally experience, the possible growing pains are worth it because the money spent on season tickets is now money spent on an increased number of interesting games.
Bottom line, folks in Richmond were gonna go to VCU games regardless.
They like the product.
They like watching the Rams play.
But this move from the CAA to the Atlantic 10 will allow them to watch the Rams play notable opponents more regularly than ever. Consequently, fans have for the first time ever bought up each and every basketball season ticket and forced the school to create its first-ever waiting list, and now VCU representatives are spending their weekdays simply adding people to it, one after another in anticipation of an improved era brought about by a cannot-believe-he-is-still-there head coach and an enhanced conference affiliation.