AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – What happens to the hunted when it becomes the hunter? Does it lose its killer instinct, its razor’s edge, the sharpness of which has been the difference between survival and irrelevance? Does it watch too much reality TV instead of going to the gym?
When VCU takes the court in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 Thursday against Akron at the Palace of Auburn Hills, it will do so in a world that has shifted its perspective of the Rams. VCU, once America’s Sweetheart, the loveable underdog, is a legitimate brand name. This year, the Rams (26-8) earned a No. 5 seed, the school’s highest in 28 years.
Some of the most memorable moments in VCU history have come with the Rams as a double-digit seed. When Eric Maynor and the Rams toppled Duke in Buffalo in 2007, they were seeded 11th. VCU was also an 11-seed in 2011, when it stormed all the way through the Southwest Regional to the Final Four. Last year, as a 12-seed, VCU upset Wichita State in the Round of 64 in Portland, Ore.
VCU, especially under Shaka Smart, has adopted the underdog philosophy better than anyone. In 2011, half the anchors employed by ESPN, including Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale, dogged the NCAA committee’s selection of VCU. The Rams used it as bulletin board material on the way to five straight upset wins. So prominent was the chip on the Rams’ shoulder, that when VCU beat USC in the First Four in Dayton that year, Smart’s first words at his postgame press conference that night were: “You think Jay Bilas watched that game?”
But this year, there was a sizable shift in the perception of VCU. The Rams moved to the Atlantic 10 Conference and weathered one of, if not, the most challenging schedules in school history. VCU beat ranked Memphis and Butler teams on national television and played down-to-the-wire thrillers with Duke and Missouri. VCU placed second in the A-10, one of the nation’s best basketball leagues. The Rams earned their first regular season national ranking since 1985. Shaka Smart and his “Havoc” were splashed all over the media.
Suddenly, VCU was no longer seen as an underdog and rarely called “mid-major”. The Rams had graduated, in a sense. It’s hard to call a school with seven straight 20-win seasons, a Final Four, and three straight NCAA appearances mid-anything.
The Rams were rewarded for their successful regular season with a 5/12 match-up with Akron, arguably the best team to come out of the Mid American Conference in years. After being spurred on by those who would doubt them, would VCU relax, now that the Rams have gone “big-time?”
“No comfort level. We still have a lot to prove even though we have a good seed,” said senior Darius Theus, a veteran of eight NCAA Tournament games. “But that doesn’t matter because anybody can be beat around this time. So there’s no comfort. Everybody’s excited, everybody’s ready to play. We just want to go out and prove that we can make this run.”
Instead of being someone’s trendy pick to knock off an unsuspecting BCS Conference school, there are people actually picking VCU to reach the Final Four. That was inconceivable just a couple of years ago. Regardless of their national stature, the Rams are trying to maintain the mindset that they are still the hunted.
“Everybody has their opinion. Some people pick us, some people don’t. But we’ve still got things to prove,” Theus said. “Two years ago, nobody picked us, and we felt like we had a lot to prove, but now that just [because] a few people are picking us, we can’t get comfortable. We’ve still got to play with that chip on our shoulder because nobody really still has that much faith in us.”
The key to staying humble and focused, Smart says, is to not play the numbers game.
“The rules of the NCAA Tournament are the same, regardless of what seed you are,” he said. “We talked about that [Monday] with our guys. The opponent is very, very good. Last year we played Wichita State in the first game. This year we play Akron. Both extremely good teams. Both with very good players. We’re the higher seed, but once that ball goes up in the air, the seeds are thrown out the window.”