RICHMOND, Va. – The result wasn’t what about 7,600 of the 7,647 folks in the stands at the Verizon Wireless Arena would’ve hoped for. But on their behalf, I’d like to ask Virginia Coach Tony Bennett personally, can we do this again?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough to stomach a 74-57 loss to an in-state rival on your home floor, but who wouldn’t sign up to play this thing again, every year?
The long-dormant VCU-Virginia series roared back to life last year in Charlottesville, when VCU scored a 59-56 victory. In that game, VCU’s Treveon Graham buried a game-winning 3-pointer with less than two seconds left. Saturday’s return game in Richmond wasn’t nearly that type of thriller, but it had many of the elements of an unforgettable college basketball game: An energized – check that, absolutely rabid – home crowd, two successful programs and, for the most part, a highly contested game.
Saturday’s final score implies a much less dramatic afternoon than actually transpired. Graham hit three consecutive second-half 3-pointers to pull VCU within 59-55 with 6:00 left. The Siegel Center crowd, possibly the loudest, most unhinged in the 16-year history of the building, became a sonic kiln, and fired itself into a deafening pitch. It wasn’t until seventh-ranked Virginia, which appears to be every bit of the top-10 team they’re advertised to be, struck back with an impressive, surgical 15-0 burst, that the result was decided.
These two schools, less than an hour apart, didn’t meet for 13 years until last season, and now that this Cadillac of a series is back, do we really want to park it in the garage wait to show it off to our grandkids. I’m not ready for that. Are you?
“Our fans were great. It was a great atmosphere. This is the type of college basketball game that guys want to play in,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart afterwards.
VCU and Virginia are the two best college basketball programs in the Commonwealth of Virginia right now, and it’s not really that close. Although the schools met 11 times between 1976 and 1998, they were rarely at similar points of maturity. Even when VCU made its early-80s climb under J.D. Barnett, the Rams had to contend with Ralph Sampson’s Cavaliers, the best teams in UVA history.
Each is led by a young, energetic coach with star power, Tony Bennett for the Cavaliers and Smart for the Rams. Each program projects toward a sustained upward trajectory. Each program can boast an engaged fan base.
There’s no other series in the state that can currently match what this one has. While Buzz Williams may turn around Virginia Tech, and Jeff Jones has spun a near-miracle in just two seasons down at Old Dominion, neither program is, at this point, a top draw. VCU and Richmond can capture this city’s attention twice a year, but not the way Saturday’s game – and last year’s – captivated VCU’s campus. Students were camping out as early as Wednesday for this game, and there were a record number of media credential requests. Seventeen NBA scouts were present. Virginia and Virginia Tech is, at present, only a perfunctory rivalry. The Cavaliers have won seven of eight against the Hokies and lead the all-time series by a lob-sided 86-53 margin (to be fair, with Saturday’s win, Virginia leads its series with VCU 11-2).
This VCU-UVA pairing has momentum, but there’s no guarantee it will continue. The original agreement between good friends Smart and Bennett was for one home-and-home series. Earlier this week, Smart said that there was no agreement currently in place to continue the series, but that there had been discussions to that end.
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to keep this budding rivalry moving will be Bennett’s. Yes, Smart has the decision-making power to choose to play or not play Virginia, but given VCU’s difficulty finding BCS-level dance partners willing to provide an even home-and-home exchange, he’s unlikely to do so. VCU’s two previous visitors from “Power Five” conference schools, Alabama and Oklahoma, were the result of clauses written into the contracts of former coaches Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant.
No, the decision will probably rest with Bennett and on the relationship between he and Smart. Bennett has shown a willingness to schedule a number of home-and-home series some top-level programs won’t touch. The Cavaliers traveled to Bennett’s alma mater Green Bay last year – and lost. UVA also recently completed a home-and-home series with James Madison. So, if anybody’s willing to come to the table with VCU and schedule in an equitable manner, it would be probably be Bennett and Virginia.
And he should want to extend the series. Bennett has led Virginia back to prominence following an underwhelming decade in the middle-to-bottom of the ACC. From the top tier of the ACC, Bennett can schedule nearly anyone he wants. He should want to schedule VCU.
For one, last year’s contest in Charlottesville outdrew UVA’s games with North Carolina, Wisconsin and Maryland, to name a few. In addition, if Bennett wants to continue to provide his teams with a non-conference test to prepare for the ACC gauntlet, he’ll almost certainly find one with VCU. The Rams will continue to win and run an aggressive, high-pressure system that directly challenges the measured, tempo-be-damned manner in which Virginia wants to play.
For the fans, it would be hard to ask for more. The arenas have been packed, the games intense, the teams often ranked. It’s college basketball at its best. Regardless of Saturday’s result, we’re all better off if this series continues.
So what do you say, Tony? Run it back?
It was difficult to comprehend. An opportunity for victory was there and gone in roughly three minutes of game time.
VCU, playing before
Two things were readily apparent following seventh-ranked Virginia’s 74-57 win over VCU at a raucous Verizon Wireless at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. No. 1: The Cavaliers are very good and very much deserve a top-10 designation. No. 2: The best teams in the country know how to capitalize on even the smallest opportunity.
On Saturday, Virginia executed well and shot splendidly, but it was one superb three-minute stretch that finally allowed the Cavaliers to put away a