|Coach Shaka Smart has transformed VCU into a frequent NCAA tourney contender. (US Presswire)|
When the Atlantic 10 announced this summer that it was offering invitations to Butler and VCU the national headlines were mostly about how two recent Final Four participants -- and their fine young coaches -- were upgrading in league affiliation.
That's what I wrote.
That's what most people wrote.
But the story was different in the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia because the city of Richmond found itself in a unique situation. Suddenly, it was the home of two relevant basketball programs that participate in the same basketball league.
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"It's a huge deal -- especially on the heels of two years ago when VCU went to the Final Four and we went to the Sweet 16," said Richmond coach Chris Mooney. "We were both in San Antonio for that Sweet 16, and the city really got caught up in that. So for this to happen very shortly after that makes this even more exciting, more interesting and better. I think it's going to be great."
How many cities have what Richmond now has?
Los Angeles is one because of UCLA and USC in the Pac-12. Philadelphia has been another thanks to Temple and Saint Joseph's in the A-10. But Temple is now headed to the Big East so that's over (though Philadelphia in exchange will get Temple and Villanova in the Big East). And, yes, I know Duke and North Carolina both play in the ACC and are really close to each other, but the schools aren't technically in the same city so let's ignore them for the sake of the column; same goes for Seton Hall and Rutgers. And let's also ignore the low-major programs that might reside in the same city but are mostly irrelevant locally and nationally because they are, well, mostly irrelevant locally and nationally.
What I'm talking about here is relevant basketball programs in the same league in the same city.
That scenario is rare as Ric Flair
But it's something the city of Richmond will now enjoy for the first time since Richmond left VCU in the CAA in 2001.
"Our rivalry was already a big deal in the city because we played every December," said VCU coach Shaka Smart. "But now it'll be even bigger."
The other thing that makes this in-city rivalry interesting is that the contrasts between the schools, programs, enrollment and pretty much everything else couldn't be more obvious even though the VCU and Richmond campuses are only separated by about seven miles. VCU is a public institution with an urban campus and more than 31,000 students. Richmond is a private institution with a residential campus and just 4,500 students. VCU gets up and down the court about as well as any team in the country. Richmond runs a version of the Princeton offense. So, yes, these programs are in the same league and from the same city, but they might as well be from different worlds. One of the only things they actually have in common is that they're both coached by accomplished, respected and relatively young men who have had postseason success and multiple opportunities to leave.
Smart is 35 and has led VCU to the past two NCAA tournaments. Mooney just turned 40 and has led Richmond to two of the past three NCAA tournaments. Smart has been pursued by ACC and Big Ten schools. Mooney has been pursued by Big East and ACC schools. But both passed on what most would consider higher-profile jobs, and the winner is the city of Richmond.
"For both of us to have decided to stay I think really just speaks to the commitment of our schools to basketball," Mooney said. "And it speaks to how great it is to be in Richmond, Virginia, and to the possibilities here that we both see."
And now they'll get to see each other more than usual.
The first game this season is set for Jan. 24.
The second is March 6.
City bragging rights will forever be at stake.
"If you ask the University of Richmond people who's better they're going to say the University of Richmond, and if you ask VCU people who's better they're going to say VCU," Smart said. "The good thing about this is that it gets decided on the court. And I think everybody is fortunate that it's now going to get decided at least twice as often."