RICHMOND, Va. – VCU Coach David Giffard isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to scheduling – or when it comes to evaluating the Rams’ 2013 schedule.
“It’s the best schedule in the country, for sure,” he says definitively.
It would be tough to argue against the fourth-year Rams’ coach. Tell him it’s not the best schedule when VCU lines up against one of 11 NCAA Tournament teams from last year. That’s nearly one quarter of the entire field. Tell Giffard he’s taking it easy when one of the eight national seeds VCU is scheduled to play comes calling. The teams on VCU’s schedule have won eight of the last 10 National Championships, so go ahead, construct your argument and convince Giffard that there’s another school with this much heft on its docket. Did we mention that defending National Champion Indiana is coming to Sports Backers Stadium on Oct. 18? Well, there’s that too.
The Rams also host New Mexico (Sept. 6), a national seed last year, national seed and defending Atlantic 10 Champion Saint Louis (Oct. 6), not to mention UAB, Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina, who were all in the NCAA Tournament last fall. VCU will also travel to Giffard’s old stomping grounds at the University of Akron (Sept. 13). The Zips were ranked seventh in the country last year. But don’t let that overshadow trips to Virginia, Wake Forest or Maryland. And that’s without even mentioning the A-10 schedule.
But Giffard says the schedule his staff put together was never about shock and awe. It’s more organic than that. His actual intent was to ensure the Rams had every opportunity to reach their potential, and that won’t happen playing the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“I just think we set out with the idea that we want to, every year, challenge ourselves against the best programs and the best teams that we can,” Giffard says. “That’s the way you realistically can not only measure yourself as a player and as a group, but it’s also the way you improve and grow.”
Although it can vary from coach to coach, scheduling often parallels expectations. Teams that are rebuilding or unsure of their abilities may schedule lighter than previous years. Meanwhile, schools that believe they have an NCAA-quality team or that want to secure an NCAA at-large bit may up the ante.
Before he set out to reconstruct the VCU program in 2010, Giffard was an assistant at Akron. In 2009, the Zips reached the National Championship match. A year later, they won it all. He’s never been interested in building a nice, mid-major program. His career, which also includes stops at UAB and Indiana, was forged in places with College Cup-sized expectations. After the Rams returned to the NCAA Tournament last season as the No. 14 overall seed, he knew it time to set his eyes on the horizon and shoot for the sun. He felt like his team and the program were ready.
“I think what it says about our expectations of the team is that it says we’re at a point where we’re prepared to be challenged this way,” he says. “How successful our team will be, that remains to be seen, but the only way we’re going to continue to grow and be as successful as we can be is to play the best schedule we can and to play against teams who will challenge you night in and night out to make improvements during the course of the season, because it’s not really where you begin.”
It’s not easy to line up a murderer’s row of heavyweights. It took a few years for top teams to consider scheduling the Rams. When VCU was down – and when Giffard arrived, the Rams had just finished a season ranked 161st in RPI – elite teams shied away. Giffard wasn’t the only coach who wanted to challenge his team on a regular basis. But now, with the Rams entrenched as a top-25 program, they’re an attractive opponent. Teams know they’ll be playing one of the best, rather than an opponent that could kill its RPI.
It doesn’t hurt to catch a few breaks when putting together a schedule like this, either. Giffard says the Indiana game, arguably the best home date at Sports Backers Stadium in a decade, if ever, came together in large part due to conference realignment. The Rams were originally scheduled to face Georgetown, but the Hoyas move into the new Big East forced them to drop a game. Meanwhile, Indiana had originally agreed to play at Notre Dame, but when the Irish bolted to the ACC, it altered the number of conference games on its schedule. Out went Indiana. Giffard worked at Indiana before he went to Akron, so a few phone calls later, the defending National Champions were on the Rams’ schedule.
Now, all that’s left is for the Rams to gear up for what’s sure to be an interesting ride. But Giffard probably won’t have to make many impassioned speeches to get his players ready to face the nation’s best schedule.
“All you have to do is see it and the guys were excited,” he says. “It’s not difficult to get up for Indiana on a Friday night or New Mexico on a Friday night or Akron on a Friday night or Wake on a Tuesday. Those games are all games, as a player, that you’re super excited to play in. That’s what you want, and that’s why you come to programs like this, to play in those games.”