RICHMOND, Va. – On Saturday, VCU will return to the Richmond Coliseum, where even the mystique is a little musty. The cavernous, oft-maligned downtown arena has seen better days, but VCU shares a great deal of history with its erstwhile home. So don’t be surprised if the Rams’ meeting with Virginia Tech at 5:30 p.m. in the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic has a throwback feel.
The game will be a throwback to the days when the J.D. Barnett-coached “Runnin’ Rams” lorded over Sun Belt foes and packed the house. Even after VCU opened the Stuart C. Siegel Center in 1999, the Rams played in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament at the Coliseum each March. VCU won four CAA crowns – the most of any of the four conferences the Rams have played in – on that floor.
VCU last played at the Coliseum on March 5, 2012, when it defeated Drexel 59-56 for the CAA Championship. Last season, which saw VCU move from the CAA to the Atlantic 10, was the first in which the Rams did not play a single game at the Coliseum since the building opened in 1971.
For all its flaws – of which old age is the most obvious – the Rams have always been hard to beat in the arena. During the Barnett era (1979-85), the Sun Belt was likely at its apex and the Rams – who reached the NCAA Tournament five times during that six-year period – drew raucous crowds. Even afterwards, in-state games with Virginia Tech, Virginia, Old Dominion and others drew 10,000-plus. At the tail end of VCU’s CAA reign, the Rams were a nearly guaranteed sellout. When full (or close), crowd noise reverberated off the building’s metal roof and brick walls to create an intimidating sonic crush. The Rams appeared to enjoy the spoils of the atmosphere. VCU is 273-108 (.717) all-time in the building.
Fans will carry their own memories into Saturday’s match-up. Shaka Smart will be no different. He won his first conference championship as a head coach in 2012 at the Coliseum. The arena was also the site of one of his greatest disappointments.
“Probably other than the Butler game, if I could get one game back since the time I’ve been at VCU, it’s the time we lost to Old Dominion my first year (2009-2010) in the CAA semifinals. We were up 12 with about 10-12 minutes left in the game, Brandon had a three go in-and-out to go up 15, and they beat us in overtime (73-69).”
The game will also be a throwback to a time when VCU and Virginia Tech played willingly and often. Saturday’s game will be the first between the two schools since Feb. 23, 1995, a contest also played at the Richmond Coliseum. It’s the longest current gap for VCU in any series against a Division I in-state school. The last time the Rams and Hokies played, Smart was a senior at Oregon High School in Wisconsin, while Tech Coach James Johnson was two years out of college and coaching at Ferrum.
VCU and Virginia Tech met 20 times between 1978 and 1995 (series is tied 10-10), 11 of which came at the Coliseum. The schools met three times during the 1986-87 season alone, and from 1991-1995, they were Metro Conference rivals. This will be Virginia Tech’s first game in the Coliseum since 2000.
In the years since, Tech moved onto the (old) Big East and then the ACC. In the process, the Hokies’ scheduling philosophy evolved, and it didn’t necessarily include VCU. But with seemingly a wave of Governor Bob McDonnell’s hand, the series – which VCU fans had called to resurrect often over the years – is back, if only for a day. To give you one measure of Tech’s interest in a series with VCU, one could look no further than the press conference to announce the Holiday Hoops Classic two years ago, when then-Hokies’ Coach Seth Greenberg showed up with all the enthusiasm of a man headed to a root canal.
“I’m fired up, I’m really looking forward to playing,” Smart said. “It’s a game that normally wouldn’t be scheduled. We can’t pick up the phone and schedule that game, so we get to play them, and I know they’re fired up to play us too. We’re a team that’s received a lot of attention in this area the last several years, so, it’ll be a test of which team is more connected on that day and which team plays the best basketball.”
VCU will hope for history to hold the line Saturday. The Rams are 7-4 against the Hokies at the Coliseum, and have won four straight over their in-state foes in the building.