BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Two years ago, this column would have been a eulogy. Today, it’s merely a reminder of how far the VCU program has come and where it’s headed.
VCU suffered a cruel blow Sunday at Barclays Center with a 65-61 loss to Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 Championship Game. It was a near repeat of 12 months ago, when Saint Louis dealt the Rams a similarly close championship game loss on the same floor.
Emotion caught up to the weight of those two losses Sunday. At the final horn, which cut short VCU’s furious attempt at a comeback, senior Juvonte Reddic crouched down near the VCU basket and buried his head in his shirt. It wasn’t until teammate Jarred Guest and Assistant Coach Mike Rhoades came over to comfort Reddic that he finally left the floor.
It’s understandable that Reddic would be crestfallen. For a second straight year, VCU came within a couple of bounces of a championship. That’s hard to handle, for sure.
But the tonic for what ails Reddic and VCU fans right now should be this: In the two years since the Rams last won a conference championship, the 2012 CAA title, the program has blossomed into a consistent national force. That doesn’t blunt the pain of a championship loss on Sunday, but it does make for a better Monday. That’s because by then, VCU will be making travel arrangements for a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament trip.
In 2011, VCU had to sweat out the NCAA Selection Show after losing to Old Dominion in the CAA Championship Game. Actually, many of the players didn’t bother to watch the show at all. Today, all they had to worry about was whether or not they needed to pack shorts or fleece. The answer is shorts, by the way, as VCU drew a 5-seed and will play Stephen F. Austin in San Diego Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
This is not to render the Atlantic 10 Championship irrelevant. It’s not. Other than a deep NCAA Tournament run, it would be the jewel of any VCU Basketball season. VCU showed up in Brooklyn expecting to load a trophy onto the bus.
What’s worth considering is that the VCU season and its NCAA Tournament hopes no longer come down to one game. The program no longer needs a one-game playoff to validate the worthiness of a 34-game marathon. When VCU won its final CAA Championship in 2012, the Rams were the lone representative of the league in the NCAA Tournament and earned a 12-seed. Today, they’re the top-seeded team (along with Saint Louis) in a six-NCAA bid Atlantic 10.
Sunday night, VCU Coach Shaka Smart will be able to regroup his team for the postseason run in a tournament that isn’t named the NIT or CBI.
“We weren’t good enough as a team, and it’s something that hurts because it was a big goal of ours. But it wasn’t our only goal,” Smart said. “We obviously have an important part of the season coming up next, so I think for us, the most important thing is to stay together and regroup, figure out who we’re playing, where we’re playing, when we’re playing and move forward.”
Moving to the A-10 last year was about greater opportunity, and in the last two seasons, VCU has seized on the league’s higher profile and tougher top-to-bottom quality to forge two of the best NCAA resumes in program history. Before last year, VCU hadn’t played as the higher seed in an NCAA Tournament game since 1985. This March, the Rams will do so for the second straight year.
To listen to senior Rob Brandenberg, who, along with classmate Juvonte Reddic, will become the first VCU players to appear in four NCAA Tournaments, that opportunity is already is already helping the Rams redirect their attention.
“I was just telling Juvonte, Tre, you know, let it hurt, but you can’t be down too long, because we’ve got some games we’ve got to play this week in the NCAA Tournament,” said Brandenberg, who scored 18 points Sunday. “I’m just going to use this as motivation to leave it all out there. I don’t want my season to end like this on a loss. So I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure my teammates are ready and make sure that whatever happens, I just leave it all out on the floor like I did tonight.”
Like Brandenberg said, let it hurt, but be ready to turn the page.
In an emotional VCU lockerroom after Sunday’s loss, Smart wandered over to leading scorer Treveon Graham, who sat in a folding chair, head down, eyes to the floor. Smart sat next to Graham to counsel his junior star and told him, “keep your head up”. VCU fans can do the same.