PORTLAND, Ore. – Shaka Smart, one of the more well-read, media darlings in all of college basketball, seemed at a loss for words. When you’re a guy who can effortlessly quote Sun Tzu and Shakespeare, as Smart did this week, that’s hard to imagine.
But prior to his opening statement following VCU’s 63-61 loss to Indiana Saturday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at the Rose Garden, Smart paused, contemplated, let out a big sigh and shook his head. The moment lasted 10, maybe 15 seconds, but it perfectly conveyed his state of mind better than anything he could have said.
This one hurt.
The Rams held a nine-point lead with 12:20 to play and a 61-56 advantage with less than two minutes remaining. But VCU, nearing another stunning NCAA Tournament victory, watched it slip away in a hail of missed jumpers and an unrelenting Hoosier squad. Indiana scored the final seven points of the game, while the Rams were 2-of-15 from the field, including 0-of-8 from three, in the final 12:20. After Rob Brandenberg’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer fell short, Smart was there to comfort, putting his arm around his sophomore guard as they walked back to the locker room.
When asked how long it would take to get over Saturday’s loss, Smart was honest.
“Forever,” he said. “I don’t get over games like this. I didn’t get over Butler last year. But you have to move on.
“I don’t deal well with losing, but it’s part of life. I told the guys in the locker room, we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves.”
And they shouldn’t. The way the loss was delivered may have been heartbreaking – certainly one of the more difficult losses in recent memory – but it won’t tarnish what was great about this squad. This band of disrupters that led the nation in steals and generally made life miserable for the opposition can hang its hat on a season’s worth of success.
A year after it reached the Final Four, despite losing four of its five top scorers, VCU won a school-record 29 games, captured the Colonial Athletic Association Championship and came within a bucket of the Sweet 16.
The Final Four run shoved a mountain of unreasonable expectations VCU’s way. Internally, there was much talk within the VCU Athletic Department of “managing expectations” for the 2011-12 season because of the Rams’ youth and because the Final Four doesn’t happen every year at any school, not Kentucky or UCLA or Duke or Indiana.
Despite legions of energized fans and an army of media members expecting the impossible, expecting VCU to be the next big thing again, the Rams actually delivered in nearly every regard.
It didn’t start out that way. The Rams struggled in their opener against a woeful Saint Francis (Pa.) team and then dropped two of three at the Charleston Classic. But once VCU hit its stride, the Rams were practically unbeatable. VCU won 28 of its final 33 games, including 18 of the last 20. The Rams’ final four losses came by a total of 11 points.
“That’s tough to do. This loss really stings,” Brandenberg, who scored 13 points Saturday, said when asked to reflect on the positives of VCU’s season. “Once time goes on, we’ll be able appreciate each other and the season we had.”
That’s because while there were varying degrees of expectation for VCU, the only ones that mattered to Shaka Smart and his team were the ones that they created. They wanted to get better, overcome the mistakes of their youth and peak in March. They wanted to win the CAA and wreak havoc. They dangled the goal of the Sweet 16. Pretty dang close.
And more could be on the way. Six years ago, VCU hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in a generation. A year ago, the school had never advanced past the round of 32, now that’s seen as a reasonable goal every year. The Rams lose one senior, albeit one of the best players ever to wear black and gold, in Bradford Burgess.
But make no mistake, VCU’s ascent is real. It’s not a fluke or a one-time flash in the pan. Of course, that means there will be another mountain of expectations to climb, but I imagine the Rams and Smart like their chances.