RICHMOND, Va. – About 70 miles separate the campuses of VCU and Virginia, a little more than an hour for even the most conservative drivers. But it’s the figurative divide, not the physical, between the two schools that has kept their men’s basketball teams apart for 15 years.
On Tuesday, the series between VCU and Virginia, on sabbatical since Rams’ Coach Shaka Smart was a senior at Kenyon College, resumes at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. It’s a marquee match-up of ranked squads. The Rams are 14th in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 Poll, while the Cavaliers are 25th.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for both teams and for all the fans of college basketball in the area,” Smart said Monday at his weekly press conference. “There’s a lot of great basketball that goes on throughout the year in Virginia, in the Mid-Atlantic Region, but for this early in the year, for two teams that are in the top 25 to play one another…I think that’s what it’s all about.”
But the strength of the match-up might not be the most remarkable element of Tuesday’s contest. It’s that the game is happening at all.
Part of a home-and-home series between the two schools (UVA will visit VCU in ’14-15), the game likely owes its existence as much to the mid-major roots of Virginia Coach Tony Bennett and the friendship between he and Smart, as it does the standing of the two programs.
VCU and Virginia last met in a game on Nov. 13, 1998 in Richmond, an 86-70 Cavaliers’ win. That contest was originally scheduled as VCU’s grand debut in the Stuart C. Siegel Center, but construction delays prevented the arena from opening until the following season. Instead, it was played at Richmond’s Robins Center.
Although the two schools didn’t always play annually (11 meetings from 1976-1998), the 15-year hiatus is by far the longest of the series. In the interim, VCU began its slow and steady ascent into college basketball’s elite. The Rams ended an eight-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2004 and barged onto the national scene in 2007 with an upset of Duke. Under Smart, VCU has become a top-20 program, complete with Final Four appearance in 2011. UVA’s fortunes have swayed like the tides during that period, but appear to have stabilized to support a steady climb under Tony Bennett, who was named head coach in 2009.
Today, VCU and Virginia are the state’s two premier basketball institutions, and it seems obvious that the Rams and Cavaliers would desire a match-up of this magnitude. But the break in the VCU/ Virginia series illustrates a long understood imbalance in college basketball.
Teams from “BCS” conferences like the ACC own a disproportionate amount of leverage in scheduling. If an ACC school like Virginia were to play a game on the road against a school perceived as mid-major – a label VCU is now shedding – they’d be expected to win. A loss, in perception and (sometimes) RPI, was more than most schools were willing to bear; nothing to gain, everything to lose. For years, VCU has resisted disproportionate scheduling arrangements with schools from conferences like the ACC. Rather than play a single road game with no return contest, or a 2-for-1, the Rams aimed for equal footing.
It’s why the Rams’ two most-notable recent home games against “BCS” opponents, Oklahoma and Alabama, came as the result of clauses in the contracts of former coaches Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant. The Rams dealt both schools lop-sided losses. Teams are also likely swayed by the Siegel Center, where the Rams have sold out 36 straight games and are 179-29 all-time, not to mention, VCU’s “Havoc”.
“I think a lot of people don’t want to play here against us, with that animal (atmosphere) out there and our style of play,” Smart said. “Not saying that we’re better than anyone else, but when you add all those things together, and you’re a high-major team you say, ‘Why? Why would I do that?’”
With three straight NCAA appearances, including at least one win in each, the Rams are certainly an attractive opponent, and on level ground with nearly any program in the country. But it hasn’t yet translated to carte blanche in scheduling.
“[Gonzaga Coach] Mark Few told me a couple of summers ago, he said, as you’re building your program, scheduling will be the last thing to come around,” Smart recalled. “[He said] recruiting will come around quicker, obviously the interest from your fans, that will increase quicker. But scheduling takes the longest, and he was right.”
However, Smart and Bennett initiated a thaw of the series, on ice since grunge. The coaches took over at their respective programs the same year and often crossed paths while recruiting. Both men are from Wisconsin, where Bennett is something of a hoops legend. The son of former Wisconsin and Washington State Coach Dick Bennett, Tony starred for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay and later played in the NBA.
Smart and Tony Bennett talked on the recruiting trail and say the idea for a home-and-home series was broached early on in their tenures, but scheduling logistics prevented the games from happening until now. The two schools did meet in a closed scrimmage last season. In addition, Smart and Bennett also won gold medals together as assistant coaches under Billy Donovan this summer with Team USA at the FIBA U19 World Championships in Prague, Czech Republic.
“We spent a ton of time [together],” Bennett said. “I genuinely really like Shaka. I’ve always respected him, liked him, but then when you spend four weeks, really got to know him well, and when you’re pursuing a goal together like we were it was really good. But times we spent together, we talked a lot of basketball. I think he’s one of the best young minds in the game. Watching him coach and seeing him interact, so I have that kind of respect, plus he’s a Wisconsin guy, so that’s another notch in the belt.”
Bennett’s mid-major roots have also helped provide WD-40 to the gears of scheduling. Bennett says as a player at Green Bay, he enjoyed in-state rivalries and longed for games against in-state headliners Wisconsin and Marquette that never materialized. During his tenure as head coach at Washington State from 2006-09, he continued his father’s tradition of scheduling Gonzaga. He also played games at Milwaukee and Idaho. Since he took over at UVA, Bennett has initiated a home-and-him series with George Mason. Bennett hasn’t been deterred by negative outcomes, either. The Cavaliers dropped their season-opener last season at George Mason’s Patriot Center.
“I always thought, wow, if there’s an opportunity…when you have an opponent as good as VCU, as respected as they are, and there’s an opportunity there…I think it’s good for the game, it’s good for the program and it challenges you,” Bennett said. “I feel like, to not play or do that, that’s just not the way I’m wired in regards to this. I think it’s a positive. I really do.”
Whether or not the Rams’ series with Virginia is the beginning of a shift in some programs’ attitudes towards scheduling VCU remains to be seen. But this game appears to have been (almost) worth the 15-year wait.
“The scheduling game can be very frustrating and can be a long and winding road, Smart said. “Some people can take you for a ride for a long time. But they were great in that they agreed to play. I think it’s good for both teams. It’s easy to look at it like, they’re doing us this huge favor, which, I’m very appreciative that they’re playing, but whoever wins the game, it’s going to be a high-quality win, and the same thing could be said next year when they come here.”
The last time they met (courtesy of Scott Day’s VCU game notes):
Nov. 13, 1998
-VCU seniors Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg were in the second grade.
-Average price of a gallon of gasoline: $1.01.
-No. 1 movie in the country was Adam Sandler’s “The Waterboy.”
Virginia leads, 10-1
12/29/76, L, 58-65 (Richmond Coliseum – Times-Dispatch Invitational)
11/25/78, L, 60-81 (Charlottesville, Va. – Cavalier Invitational)
12/28/79, L, 72-89 (Richmond Coliseum – Times-Dispatch Invitational)
11/29/80, L, 62-77 (Charlottesville, Va. – Cavalier Invitational)
11/27/82, L, 63-69 (Charlottesville, Va. – Cavalier Invitational)
12/01/85, L, 75-79 (ot) (Charlottesville, Va. – Cavalier Classic)
12/19/87, W, 75-66 (Richmond Coliseum – Times-Dispatch Invitational)
12/20/89, L, 46-63 (Richmond Coliseum – Times-Dispatch Invitational)
12/21/96, L, 65-80 (Charlottesville, Va.)
12/13/97, L, 67-78 (Richmond, Va. – Robins Center)
11/13/98, L, 70-86 (Richmond, Va. – Robins Center)
Home: 1-4 Away: 0-5 Neutral: 0-1