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.”
Six current Rams, seniors Darius Theus, Troy Daniels and David Hinton, as well as juniors Rob Brandenberg, Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley, were members of VCU’s Final Four squad. Theus says he hasn’t seen the tape either, although that will likely change later this week.
Brandenberg played seven minutes that night at the Reliant Stadium and remembers the singular brilliance of future pro Shelvin Mack, who hit 5-of-6 three-pointers for Butler and finished with 24 points. He also remembers the sting of the loss, one which ended the most magical three weeks in program history. It was an experience that stayed with him for a while.
“When we made the Final Four, I firmly believed we were going to win it,” he said. “I firmly believed we were going to beat Butler. I think everybody did in that lockerroom. It was such a tough loss, probably one of the toughest losses I ever took just because the stage it was on, and we realized how amazing it was to get that far and how hard it was to get there, so, we wanted to finish the job, but we didn’t do it.”
There’s a reason VCU students are planning to construct a tent city – “Shakaville” – outside the Siegel Center this week. It’s not just because Butler is ranked 21st nationally. It’s not just because Saturday’s contest is just VCU’s second against a ranked foe since the arena opened in 1999. It’s not just because the Atlantic 10’s new kids on the block are vying for the league crown. Oh, and of course ESPN will be here too. But that’s not it either.
Those are all terrific reasons to rally around a basketball game. But it’s not why this game has been anticipated since the moment the schedule was released.
It’s because fans haven’t shaken the sour taste of that defeat, one which ended the single most stunning Final Four run in NCAA Tournament history. It’s because two nights later, when fans watched UConn and Butler shoot worse than your sixth grade gym class in the National Championship Game, they likely cursed their flatscreens and thought, ‘we could’ve won the whole thing.’ Maybe, maybe not.
But the historical aspect of this brief series is for the fans. While Smart, Brandenberg and Theus may never shake the way they felt that night in Houston, they’ve moved on. You can’t win 29 games, including a conference championship and an NCAA Tournament game – as VCU did last season – if you let the trauma of one loss invade your psyche for any length of time. The Rams are 51-15 since that night in Houston. They’re sleeping soundly.
“The Final Four’s over with,” Theus said. “We can’t do anything about it now. It’s about the A-10, just trying to get that top spot.”
Smart worried that the Final Four loss dented Brandenberg’s confidence, and the junior guard appeared to agree Wednesday with that assessment. But long ago, Brandenberg made his peace with history.
“For a few weeks I was down on myself because I felt like I could’ve played better to help my teammates,” Brandenberg said. “But at the end of the day I think it’s made me a better player. And where I’m at right now, I don’t think I’d be here if I didn’t go through that.”
It’s this year’s Butler team that has the Rams’ attention, not the ghosts of seasons past. These Bulldogs (22-6, 9-4 A-10) own wins over Indiana, which has been No. 1 for much of the season, and Gonzaga, which will likely ascend to the top spot next week. But don’t assume these Rams will be shell-shocked by the grandeur of the moment. Remember, they’ve been to the Final Four. I think we touched on that earlier.
“The past two years, we’ve been on stages like this, so I don’t think it’ll be, oh my goodness, [this stage] is too big, but I know with Darius, Troy and Juvonte, we’re going to make sure the team is ready. It’s exciting,” Brandenberg said.
As for those memories of watching Butler celebrate their win over the Rams in Houston, they still have a place in preparations for Saturday. But those recollections aren’t the only motivation for VCU.
“It’s just human nature for our juniors and seniors who were in that game to have a little extra motivation,” Smart said. “I think players on both sides have incredible motivation for this game because of the respect for the other team, where we both are in the standings, how late it is in the year, and the conference tournament is right around the corner.”
The message is clear. The Final Four, the loss, it’s so 2011 for VCU. No matter what the score is Saturday, it won’t change what happened in Houston two years ago. But Saturday? Saturday is still up for grabs.
“I’ve moved past it,” said Brandenberg. “The what-ifs, what could’ve happened. I’m kind of over that. I think I’m speaking for everybody on the team. We’re ready write our own legacy, write our own chapter.”