GHOSTS OF HOUSTON WATCH, BUT WON’T DICTATE NEXT CHAPTER OF BUTLER SERIES

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Rob Brandenberg played seven minutes as a freshman against Butler in the 2011 National Semifinal

Rob Brandenberg played seven minutes as a freshman against Butler in the 2011 National Semifinal

RICHMOND, Va. – Monday night, after a long day of recruiting, Shaka Smart did it. He finally watched the game tape of VCU’s 70-62 loss to Butler on April 2, 2011 at the Final Four. First, he watched clips of VCU’s press versus the Bulldogs, then he watched the game in its entirety. He told himself he wouldn’t get upset.

In today’s world of college basketball there are staffers, usually a graduate assistant, assigned with procuring a DVD of a game literally moments after the final horn sounds. From there, the footage is cut, spliced, splintered, scrunched, scrinched and repackaged in a Wonka-like process that has an easily consumable copy in the hands of the coaching staff by dawn. The raw game tape, meanwhile, is usually devoured by coaches before you can get from the arena to your pillow.

But not this game. Too painful.

However, with Saturday’s rematch with Butler at the Siegel Center looming, Smart knew the time had come. In the name of assembling a tactical plan for the Rams’ biggest game of the season, after nearly 700 days of avoidance, Smart cued up video of the biggest game of his life. He didn’t get upset, but he didn’t like what he saw, either.

“It’s amazing when you set your mind on something what you can do. I just told myself I wasn’t going to get upset. I knew that we lost the game, so, just watch it objectively,” he said Wednesday.

“They were the better team that day.”

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EXACTLY HOW MANY NBA GUYS WAS THAT?

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VCU’s Jamie Skeen often got the better of Kansas’ Marcus Morris (pictured in white), scoring 26 points in the Rams’ Southwest Regional Championship victory in 2011.

I know we go to the well with the Final Four thing quite a bit, but sometimes it’s just unavoidable. I had another one of those “holy-crap-what-did-we-actually-do” moments last night while watching the Kentucky Wildcat Disbursement NBA Draft.

I couldn’t help but notice the staggering number of players drafted from the teams VCU beat during that run:

Southern Cal
2011: Nikola Vucevic, first round (16th overall) Philadelphia 76ers

Georgetown
None (surprising, right?)

Purdue
2011: JaJuan Johnson, first round (27th overall) New Jersey Nets
2011: E’Twaun Moore, second round (55th overall) Boston Celtics
*2012: Robbie Hummel, second round (58th overall) Minnesota Timberwolves
–Hummel was hurt and did not play during 2011 NCAA Tournament

Florida State

Chris Singleton had 16 points and nine rebounds against VCU in 2011, but he couldn’t prevent the Rams from walking away with a 72-71 overtime victory.

2011: Chris Singleton, first round (18th overall) Washington Wizards
2012: Bernard James, second round (33rd overall) Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas)

Kansas
2011: Markieff Morris, first round (13th overall) Phoenix Suns
2011: Marcus Morris, first round (14th overall) Houston Rockets
2011: Josh Selby, second round (49th overall) Memphis Grizzlies
2012: Thomas Robinson, first round (fifth overall) Sacramento Kings
2012: Tyshawn Taylor, second round (41st overall) Portland Trail Blazers

Butler
2011: Shelvin Mack, second round (34th overall) Washington Wizards

Not counting Robbie Hummel, who was injured when the Rams played Purdue, VCU played against 11 future NBA draft picks during its Final Four run (beating 10). Kansas has had five NBA draftees on its own! And there could be more (I’m talking to you, Jeff Withey).

Meanwhile, the Rams’ roster (up to this point) hasn’t had a single player drafted from that 2011 team. VCU essentially beat an NBA team to get to the Final Four. I mean, those five Kansas guys couldn’t possibly be any worse than the Charlotte Bobcats last year, could they? But I digress.

The important thing to know is that VCU faced – and defeated – an incredible amount of talent in 2011. Sometimes it’s just worth the time to stop and appreciate it.

YOU’RE THE BEST AROUND (OF THE LAST 17 YEARS…)

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With VCU’s decision to bolt the Colonial Athletic Association still fresh in our minds, maybe now is a good time to take stock of the 17 years the Rams spent in the league. It was a good run and frankly, the CAA’s Virginia-centric appeal was one of the things that made it fun for VCU fans. I can honestly say it’s one of the things I’ll miss, times change.

VCU has won 42 CAA championships since joining the league for the 1994-95 season. The Rams’ 36 titles in men’s sports are the most in league history. The VCU Baseball team will have a chance to add to that mark later this month. The Rams have won 13 championships in men’s tennis, eight in golf and five each in men’s basketball and baseball. Other sports were not as fortunate, but still enjoyed a great deal of success. Here, I’m going to look at the best team from each VCU program of the CAA era.

BASEBALL: 2003 (46-13, 17-3 CAA, CAA Champions, 1-2 NCAAs)
This was a legitimately hard decision. You could make compelling arguments for the 1998 and 2001 teams. This is one of the few picks that required some back-and-forth debate.

But for me, the 2003 squad was a shade better. Not only did they dominate the CAA regular season and sweep the conference tournament, but the Rams also led the country in ERA that season (2.54). Four pitchers, Cla Meredth (6th), Justin Orenduff (1st), Sean Marshall 6th) and Brian Marshall (5th), were selected in the first six rounds of the MLB Draft.  Four other players were also eventually drafted. Sean Marshall and Cla Meredith played in the majors.

MEN’S BASKETBALL: 2010-11 (28-12, 12-6 CAA, NCAA Final Four)
While I’m picking a non-CAA champion here, I doubt I’ll get few arguments. VCU’s run to the Final Four in 2011 pretty much trumps everything. During the regular season the Rams were equally magnificent and maddening, but flipped a switch in March. VCU reached the CAA Championship Game, upsetting ranked and heavily-favored George Mason in the process. Despite losing to Old Dominion in the title bout, VCU received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where the Rams toppled USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas on the way to history.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: 2008-09 (26-7, 15-3 CAA, NCAA First Round)
The Rams didn’t win the CAA crown this season (Drexel did), but behind eventual WNBA first round pick Quanitra Hollingsworth, the Rams earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time via an at-large berth. The Rams met Rutgers in the first round and gave the Scarlet Knights a run for their money. In addition to Hollingsworth, future All-American and WNBA Draftee Courtney Hurt was a freshman on this squad.

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A THING OF BEAUTY

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HOUSTON, Tex. – Every day for the past four years, Shaka Smart has entered at least one quote, sometimes more, into a rapidly expanding dossier on his computer.

The word document is more than 115 pages long and literally includes thousands of quotes, some inspirational, some thought-provoking, from luminaries throughout history. But it started with one simple quote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” from a John Keats poem.

When Smart gave me that quote back in August for a story I was writing, I didn’t give it much thought. Today, those words really hit home. VCU’s NCAA Tournament run, which included five wins over BCS conference schools, was a thing of beauty. I hope that when the sting of Saturday’s loss fades, that people can appreciate the gravity of what transpired the last three weeks. From a lightly-regarded bubble team that was trashed on ESPN, to America’s sweethearts, it’s been truly magical.

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