All-American Courtney Hurt led the nation in rebounding (12.4 rpg) and double-doubles (25) last season. She also ranked second nationally in scoring (23.2 ppg)

When Beth Cunningham took over as head coach in 2003, there was exactly one postseason banner hanging inside the Verizon Wireless Arena for the women’s basketball program.

If that wasn’t bad enough by itself, that lonely piece of fabric was old enough that the tournament it was intended to celebrate, the National Women’s Invitation Tournament, had changed its name since the Rams’ 1995 appearance.

Now there are five banners, including a giant gold and white one from VCU’s 2009 NCAA Tournament appearance. In Cunningham’s eight seasons at the helm, the Rams have rewritten VCU Women’s Basketball history. VCU has reached the postseason in four consecutive seasons. The Rams are working on a school-record streak of five straight winning seasons. Three of the program’s four 20-win campaigns have come under her watch. The school’s all-time leader in victories with 148, Cunningham has coached two WNBA draft picks and an All-American.

At this point, when she takes inventory of the program, Cunningham doesn’t have to ask what the Rams have done, it’s what they still need to do. When she looks up into that northwest corner of the arena, she knows the answer. The Rams are still chasing their elusive first conference championship, Colonial Athletic Association or otherwise. VCU reached the championship game in 2008, another first for the program, but fell to Old Dominion.

“It’s something that you’d like to have already done, hang a championship banner, but there’s been so many good things that have happened with our program…it’s part of the building process,” Cunningham, 148-100 in eight seasons, said.

If there was ever a year for the Rams to change their CAA fortunes and hang that banner, this might be it. The days of Old Dominion dominance have been replaced by a pick’em league of multiple contenders. Never before has the CAA been so wide open.

“I remember when I first took over at VCU at a time when Old Dominion was clearly dominating and we felt like the only way we were going to compete with such a storied program like Old Dominion was to start beating them in the living room, Cunningham said. “The league just keeps getting better and better because the talent keeps getting better and better.”

League coaches felt strongly enough about VCU’s talent to pick the Rams second in the CAA Preseason Poll behind Delaware. Two reasons for that are seniors Courtney Hurt and Andrea Barbour, arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league, and beyond.

Hurt’s 2010-11 season was, without a doubt, the best individual year in school history. The 6-foot-1 forward blossomed from an enigmatic sidekick as a sophomore into one of the nation’s finest players. Hurt set school records in scoring (23.2 ppg), rebounding (12.4 rpg) and double-doubles (25), leading the country in the latter two categories. She tied the VCU single-scoring record with 35 points against UNC Wilmington in January. For her efforts, she was named Honorable Mention Associated Press All-America, a first for a VCU Women’s Basketball player. She enters the 2011-12 season with VCU’s career scoring and rebounding marks within her reach.

Senior guard Andrea Barbour gives the Rams a lethal 1-2 punch.

Barbour, a former ACC All-Rookie selection at Virginia Tech, comprises the second half of the Rams’ terrific twosome. A 5-foot-10 wing, Barbour’s quickness and athleticism have made her a matchup nightmare for the opposition. In 22 games, Barbour averaged 16.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Her ability to play multiple positions also gives Cunningham flexibility.

In all, four starters – all seniors – return from last season’s 19-12 squad that reached the WNIT, which gives VCU an experienced core with which to work.

“I’d like to think we’ve got a really good group of seniors that are experienced and have been through it a little bit and understand what it takes to be successful,” Cunningham said. “At the same time, we want them to understand that the things we’re trying to achieve this year are a little different than any other year, because we’re trying to hang that championship banner.”

Senior point guard Jennifer Lane has started 98 career games and averaged a career-high 4.6 assists per game last season, third-best in the CAA. Classmate Chelsea Snyder is a 6-foot-6 center whose size is a game-changer. She averaged 4.8 rebounds per game and shot 48 percent from the floor in 2010-11.

Forwards Robyn Parks (So., 6-0) and Daphne Abebayo (Jr., 6-1) served as key reserves last season. They’ll have an opportunity to carve out a more prominent role this year, as will returnees Shekinah Henry (R-Fr., 6-1), Zakia Williams (So., 5-7) and Robyn Hobson (Jr., 5-9).

Cunningham and her staff have also signed one of the most touted recruiting classes in history, a five-player group that will add depth all over the floor.

Junior Carleeda Green, a 5-foot-7 guard, averaged 11.3 points per game last season at Chipola Junior College. She hit 48 3-pointers last year, an area of need for the Rams. Meanwhile, freshman Christina Carter was the 71st-ranked player nationally in last year’s recruiting class, according to Carolina Scouting Services. She can play both guard positions and Cunningham has been impressed with her high basketball IQ.

The Rams are probably deeper in the post this year than any season in recent memory with the addition of freshmen Aprill McRae, Melanie Royster and Kiana Trice-Hill (who will likely take a medical redshirt). McRae was ranked the 22nd-best post player in the 2011 recruiting class, according to ESPN Hoopgurlz, and has impressed in preseason practice.

“April has the ability to change the game with how physical she is and how hard she plays, Cunningham said. “She’ll cause some headaches out there.”

With those additions in mind, Cunningham hopes VCU’s combination of star power, experience and depth will yield a conference title and NCAA Tournament berth in March.

“We’re all aware that it’s something that’s never been done here and I think this team would like to be the team to achieve that.”