RICHMOND, Va. – Moments before his team took the floor for Saturday’s highly anticipated game with 20th-ranked Butler, VCU Coach Shaka Smart wrote two simple words on a whiteboard in the locker room: Be VCU.
What followed was one of the most thorough dissections of a top 25 team you’ll ever see, an 84-52 browbeating that should turn heads. VCU was everything Smart wanted and more. The Rams were VCU, but they were VCU in the Hulk’s body, wearing Superman’s cape. VCU was about as good a version of itself as possible. The Rams were the Five Horsemen of Havoc, laying waste to the Bulldogs in a way not seen in Coach Brad Stevens six seasons. It was Butler’s worst loss in a conference game since the 1985-86 season.
It’s Smart’s job to find the wrong in VCU’s performance Saturday, but he’s going to dig a little deeper this time around.
“I don’t think this game went perfectly at all,” he said. “I thought our response to what happened was close to perfect…if anything was perfect, it was our guy’s commitment to our plan and our goal.”
Hey, he’s got to say things like that.
It was no secret that Butler had struggled against the full court press this year, and that VCU’s style would likely amplify those weaknesses. But VCU didn’t just amplify Butler’s shortcomings, the Rams dragged them onto the White House lawn and broadcast them on CNN. Beating Butler, while impressive, wouldn’t have been any more remarkable than any other quality top-25 win. But the manner in which the Rams whipped the Bulldogs was eye-opening.
If this wasn’t a statement win for VCU, then we should all start covering curling instead.
The Rams stood before the nation and the NCAA Selection Committee, announced their presence, then dropped the mic and walked off stage. I seriously doubt that after Saturday’s win that VCU will have to sweat out Selection Sunday later this month.
The Bulldogs scored the first two points of the game on a Khyle Marshall jumper 26 seconds into the contest. That was last highlight of Butler’s day. The Rams immediately staged a 9-0 run, which included a Briante Weber steal and tomahawk dunk, and never looked back. In the face of VCU’s relentless pressure, Butler, a program known for emulating the cool level-headedness of its coach, Brad Stevens, crumbled.
By halftime, VCU had forced 14 turnovers on the way to a 45-21 lead. The Rams outscored the Bulldogs 24-0 off turnovers in the first half. The second half was just window dressing. Mere academics. In the end, let it be known the final ledger showed a 34-2 VCU advantage in points off turnovers.
“I think our guys sustained our defense pretty close to as well as we have all year long,” Smart said afterward.
Senior Darius Theus was one of the catalysts of the Rams’ defensive performance. He finished with eight points, nine assists and five steals.
“We were pretty aggressive tonight,” Theus said, when asked to appraise the Rams’ performance. “We’ve seen spurts of that throughout the season, but I think tonight it was pretty intense out there. Guys came to press tonight and I think it just worked out in our favor.”
It was a near-perfect day for possibly the most anticipated game in the history of VCU’s Verizon Wireless Arena. It was just the second time the Rams have hosted a ranked opponent in the building since it opened in 1999.
Games with this type of buildup can be like weddings. A bride spends six, eight, 10 months planning the perfect, storybook wedding of her dreams, but then it rains, grandma gets lost, the cake tips over and the photographer falls into a fountain.
It’s been two years since VCU and Butler met at the Final Four in Houston. That’s a long time to stump for a rematch. Students camped outside the arena in tents. VCU draped the building in black t-shirts as part of a “Blackout”. ESPN2 gave the game a national platform. John Feinstein and Andy Katz were here. So were national scribes Dana O’Neil , Jeff Goodman and others. There was no way this game could shine brighter than the glow of the marquee – until it did.
It was a major moment for a program in the midst of a landmark season. Joining the A-10 was VCU’s chance to go national. Saturday was its chance to show everybody what the people of Richmond have known for some time: Havoc is the real deal, and it has staying power.
“This is why we made the move to the Atlantic 10,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart, the architect of Havoc. “A lot of you [national media members] probably aren’t here today for this game if we hadn’t made that move.”
The Rams have two more games left in the regular season, and then it’s onto Brooklyn and the A-10 Tournament. If they play anywhere close to the way they played Saturday, then it’ll be a memorable March.
“It shows our guys how good we can be when we’re locked in on the plan,” said Smart. “I don’t put a whole lot of stock into the number we won by. Butler’s a good team. Make no mistake about it. They obviously have won some huge games and they’re going to continue to win some huge games. Today was just our day.
Saturday was a day in the sun for the Rams. It was a chance to show people what it meant to be VCU.