AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Rob Brandenberg wasn’t ready to turn the page. It was too soon, the loss too recent, the pain still too raw. After VCU’s 78-53 loss to Michigan Saturday in the NCAA Third Round at The Palace of Auburn Hills, he wasn’t prepared to reflect on a season filled with a lifetime of highlights. Not yet.
“You know, later on in the future, but right now, I can’t do that,” he said.
It’s a cruel reality we face every season, one that VCU Coach Shaka Smart embraced in 2010 on the way to a CBI Championship, “very few teams get to end their season with a win”, he preached. Smart understood the value of that final win and how it can help frame the narrative of the season.
This season was like a freight train of success. There were a couple of hitches along the way, but for the most part, the Rams chugged along with a momentum and enthusiasm that has been captivating. At some point, we hitched a ride and celebrated the victories and the milestones and didn’t want to end. It felt more like a party bus. But the inevitability of a day like Saturday closed in. When a season comes to an end, it’s rarely a soft, comfortable glide into the station. It’s more like hitting the bumpers at the end of the track: sudden, jarring and painful.
Some people hold onto that feeling longer than others. Some let that one negative event color what has been five months of achievement. Don’t.
Last season, after Indiana broke the Rams’ hearts in Portland in the Round of 32, I shared an elevator ride with Smart at the hotel. I asked him how the players were. He said that they were fine. But moments later, he lamented the night’s events, the loss still obviously eating at him. You could see in his eyes that he was replaying the game in his head. This year, prior to the Rams’ match-up with Butler, Smart revealed that he finally watched the game tape of the Rams’ Final Four game with the Bulldogs from 2011 that week. Coaches watch more video than the guys working surveillance in a Vegas casino, but he let that DVD collect dust for two years. Too painful. Whatever you’re feeling after Saturday’s loss, you can believe Smart and his players are feeling, tenfold.
On Saturday, Michigan, a team playing with four legitimate pros – not guys headed to the Serbian Pro A league, mind you – played like it. Michigan played crisp, sharp basketball, moved the ball terrifically, found open shooters and finished at the rim.
It was a tough draw for the Rams from the outset. The Wolverines’ strength, protecting the basketball, cancelled out the skill that made this VCU team truly special, the ability to speed teams up, force turnovers and generate easy buckets. The Rams did turn Michigan point guard Trey Burke over seven times – no small feat – but that alone wasn’t enough.
Michigan won, and the Wolverines earned it. And that’s going to sting. And that’s okay.
I’ve been around this program for eight years. I got here in 2005, right at the beginning of VCU’s ascent to prominence. On days like this I appreciate those eight years of perspective. Before I applied for my job, I had barely heard of VCU, and I was a big college basketball fan working in college athletics. To me, VCU could’ve stood for Vacuum Collection Unit or Vector Communication User and I wouldn’t have known any better. Today, I would have to live on the moon for that to happen.
I refuse to hold onto March 23 harder than November, December, January, February and the first three weeks of March. I refuse to hold onto this one loss tighter than “The Dagger” or Larry Sanders channeling David Robinson in the 2009 CAA Championship Game or March of 2011 – literally the most insane, magical, unbelievable three weeks of my life – or returning to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2013.
This year’s seniors, Darius Theus, Troy Daniels and David Hinton were party to 111 wins – most ever by a senior class at VCU – a league championship, a Final Four and three NCAA Tournament trips. They may let Saturday bug them for a while, but in five, 10 years, the victories are what they’ll be remembered for. It’s what they’ll remember too.
VCU rolled the dice this year on conference realignment and jumped to the Atlantic 10. It could’ve hung back in the cozy CAA, but that was a road stagnation. Like Havoc, VCU was willing to take a few risks because it knew the reward.
One of those risks was the level of competition. The difference in the A-10 this year compared to last year’s CAA was stark. Smart called the A-10 it possibly the deepest league in the country. I’d be hard-pressed to argue. There were many who expected the Rams to take a step back. They did not.
Smart and VCU were better than ever. The Rams finished 12-4 in the league, good for second, and reached the league’s championship game. VCU earned its first regular season national ranking in 28 years, as well as its highest NCAA seed since 1985.
Meanwhile, the sellouts at the Siegel Center piled up, 30-something and counting. I need that Saxon Shoes graphic they flash on the video board to keep up now. When I got here, it was nice if we sold out the Old Dominion game. This year, VCU and Havoc became synonymous and were splashed all over the national media. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the Today Show. Shaka Smart is a rock star and Havoc is a cultural movement. Heck, the VCU Pep Band is a bunch of rock stars. They were in the New York Times today. Seriously, The Peppas and the Old Gray Lady.
Eight years ago, VCU was filling the Siegel Center to about 70 percent capacity, the head coach’s office resembled that of a nice high school athletic director’s and the team was happy to get on ESPN3 a couple of times a year. Now, there’s a line to get into the arena that wraps around the corner and down the street, Shaka has a balcony overlooking the court and the Rams were on national TV for more than half of their games.
Come to think of it, I was wrong earlier. The freight train didn’t stop today. The VCU program has been chugging ahead for years now, and there’s plenty of wide-open track ahead. We’ll see you back at the station in November.