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.
“What our guys accomplished I think over the past four weeks has been terrific,” Smart said. “I think we’ve played as good as basketball as anybody in the country.”
Although they battled valiantly in a game that featured 10 lead changes, seven in the second half alone, the Rams’ heart-stopping run to the Final Four ended Saturday with a 70-62 loss to Butler.
Ultimately, the game swung on Butler’s cool-headed shot-making ability in the face of pressure, as well as the Bulldog’s dominance on the glass. VCU, which had showcased an explosive offense and a stable of long-range gunners, finally couldn’t hit enough shots to carry the day.
Butler, which reached the National Championship game a year ago, looked every bit as experienced as advertised. Junior guard Shelvin Mack buried the Rams with a series of 3-pointers and finished with 24 points. Lesser-known senior Zach Hahn scored all eight of his points during one critical stretch midway through the second half that gave Butler a 44-43 lead it would not surrender.
In the days leading up to the game, Smart thought Butler wouldn’t be easily rattled by VCU’s pressure, and they weren’t. The Bulldogs turned the ball over just nine times. Additionally, except for one stretch early in each half, Butler was able to control tempo.
This loss will no doubt hurt the Rams for a while, because it was a game that could’ve gone either way, but didn’t go in VCU’s favor. That’s understandable. When the final horn sounded, senior Jamie Skeen, who supplied a splendid 27-point, six-rebound effort, lingered before walking off the court slowly, the last Ram to leave. Throughout the tournament, Skeen talked about how he just didn’t want the run to end, and Saturday, he looked like he meant every bit of it.
But, as time passes and the days turn into months, hopefully Skeen and his teammates will be able to appreciate what they’ve done. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the road and had someone look at my shirt and say, “VCU? What is that?” I suspect those moments will be few and far between from here on out.
In six games, VCU changed a school and a program, possibly forever. It took VCU more than 40 years to win its first five NCAA Tournament games. This year, they won five in three weeks.
VCU has always been a hulking, urban commuter school searching for an identity. But this March, it found one as a plucky, defiant underdog. After each win, the crowds grew, the frenzy built. Following the Rams’ win over Kansas last Sunday, which gave VCU its Final Four berth, fans flooded Broad Street in celebration. Later, nearly 7,000 fans gathered at the Siegel Center, on short notice, at 1:30 a.m., for a celebratory rally.
Restaurants named sandwiches after players and offered VCU specials. Schools and businesses posted signs wishing the Rams good luck. Fans waited four hours in line for Final Four t-shirts and Nike printed “Shaka the World” apparel. People who had never heard of VCU before March cheered on the Rams.
VCU became a national fascination. Shaka Smart morphed into a rock star. Diminutive point guard Joey Rodriguez was adopted by TV’s talking heads and some of the best sports writers in the world as the poster child for the underdog.
“It was a great run, Skeen said. “We made history. We went deep into the tournament and we did what everybody said we couldn’t do. I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates.”
It’s going to be different now, I imagine. Expectations will change. Fans will hope to capture this lightning in a bottle. Everybody will hope to duplicate the heroics of March 2011. Whether or not it happens again, and we all come to work every day believing it will, it won’t change a thing about this and what it meant.
Before the game, VCU Athletic Director Norwood Teague stopped by my courtside seat and told us to take in the experience and enjoy it before adding, “And we’ll be back.” I desperately want somebody to prove him right, but even if they don’t, it’s still been a thing of beauty.