AGAINST TEXAS, RAMS CAME UP BIG

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Freshman Marcus Santos-Silva (8 points, 6 rebounds) was one of several VCU “bigs” who impressed Tuesday.

By Andy Lohman

Tuesday night was big in every way.

The return of Head Coach Shaka Smart was big. The man who took the Rams to the Final Four was back in the house that Havoc built. As he walked out before player intros, his ovation was big. A fan base with a cathartic recognition of a former leader. But it was nothing compared to how big the noise would get.

The Siegel Center was ear-splittingly loud, a volume that felt like it was going to cause seismic activity.

“The fans were crazy tonight, unbelievable,” senior forward Justin Tillman said. “It definitely brought us a lot of energy.”

The crowd was big. The 105th consecutive sellout was recorded at 7,637, but it would have been believable at 10,000. The arena pulsated with every swell of action, a black and gold orchestra conducted by a manic Mike Rhoades, who urged Ram Nation to get loud whenever the Longhorns reached the free throw line.

The match-up was big. VCU is a young team looking to turn the corner, and had a shot at a signature win for an NCAA Tournament resume. Texas is as big of an athletic department as you can get. A Big 12 school, from the state where everything is bigger, with a nine-figure revenue mark.

Finally, the matchups were big. Texas forward Mohamed Bamba stands at 6-foot-11 and is a likely lottery pick in the NBA Draft. VCU’s big men were up to the challenge, fueling a big comeback in the second half. In just over eight minutes, the Rams erased a 57-38 Texas lead and took a 63-62 advantage with 3:52 to play.

The man that hit the go-ahead three-pointer was VCU’s 6-foot-7 forward, Khris Lane.

“Oh man, it was amazing,” Lane said of the crowd when his three went down. “I said something to myself, but I couldn’t even hear what I said to myself because it was that loud.”

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FROM SMART TO WADE: INSIDE THE VCU MEN’S BASKETBALL COACHING SEARCH

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Ed McLaughlin (left) introduces VCU Head Coach April 8 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

Ed McLaughlin (left) introduces VCU Head Coach Will Wade April 8 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

Thursday, April 2
The call from Richmond reached Ed McLaughlin’s cell phone at Mo’s Steakhouse in Indianapolis at 10:28 p.m. McLaughlin, in Indianapolis for the Final Four, was expecting the call, but the message was still a mystery. He was either going to enjoy a nice evening with colleagues or a long night of planning for the biggest decision of his professional career.

He was out the door within five minutes.

On the other end of line was VCU Men’s Basketball Coach Shaka Smart, who informed McLaughlin that he’d decided to accept the same position at Texas. Smart had just told his team of his plans and would be in Austin by the following day.

Despite the emotional demonstrations in Richmond, where fans gathered outside the Siegel Center in an attempt to convince Smart to stay, McLaughlin’s conversation with his now-former coach was businesslike.

“I congratulated him and said, ‘good for you’, and we talked about some logistical things,” McLaughlin said.

It was a quiet end to a week of rampant speculation in the media, a week where guesswork outpaced actual work. McLaughlin knew better. The real action lay ahead, not behind.

McLaughlin began organizing for what promised to be one of the busiest weekends of his life. Back in Richmond, Executive Associate Athletic Director Glenn Hofmann started calling VCU donors to inform them personally of the news. Meanwhile, Deputy A.D. Jon Palumbo, essentially in standby mode as Smart weighed his options, prepared to fly to Indianapolis to help McLaughlin conduct interviews.

The search to replace Smart, the most successful coach in VCU history, would begin the next morning in earnest.

While there was little certainty about Smart’s decision until late Thursday, McLaughlin and his staff had been preparing for this contingency for days, and in some ways, years.

‘The plan was in place,” McLaughlin said.

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A LASTING IMPRESSION

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Shaka Smart won 163 games and led VCU to the 2011 Final Four, but his tenure was about much more than wins and losses.

Shaka Smart won 163 games and led VCU to the 2011 Final Four, but his tenure was about much more than wins and losses.

“Who the hell is Shaka Smart?” I asked.

This was back in the wild days of 2009, when we talked about basketball in “94 feet, both ways” terms and Eric Maynor’s Duke Dagger was still freshly firing through our synapses.

I was conversing with Jeremy Shyatt, VCU’s then-director of basketball operations. Chaka? Shaky? Shaka Smart? Never heard of him. I wasn’t the only one. This was the heir apparent, some 32-year-old Florida assistant with a funny name? Shyatt assured me that this surprise hire – and it was a surprise – was a good one. His father, Larry Shyatt, worked alongside Smart at Florida.

“Shaka’s awesome,” he declared with nary a tinge of doubt.

When there’s a coaching search going on, a parade of names is trotted out, everybody from the high-major retreads to the hotshot recruiters. I hadn’t heard this Shaky Smart dude’s name all week, and it felt like a leap of faith. Was then-Athletic Director Norwood Teague trying to outthink the room?

We were riding pretty high on the hog those days. Three NCAA bids in six years? There was a feeling in the hallways that we’d arrived as a program. The man at the top, Anthony Grant, didn’t just resemble a statue. People were actually ready to build one of him outside the Siegel Center. How much better could we expect to do? We were mid-major darlings, and we were pretty darn happy about it.

It’s not like Smart immediately inspired confidence from afar. This is why your mother lectures you about reading books by their covers, that sort of thing. Grant looked like he’d been genetically engineered. Intense, laconic, sonorous, 6-foot-5 and sculpted from stone, he commanded attention. You could’ve mistaken Smart for the UPS guy. I just hoped he could keep VCU near the top of the CAA.

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PORTLAND NOTES: RUSSELL OFFICIALLY CRAFTY, BROOKS BREAKS OUT FOR VCU

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Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

Ohio State freshman D’Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Much of the talk surrounding VCU’s NCAA Tournament Round of 64 match-up with Ohio State has centered on Buckeyes’ star guard D’Angelo Russell, and for good reason.

Russell, a 6-foot-5 freshman, was recently named All-America by the United States Basketball Writers Association. The Louisville, Kentucky native ranks first nationally among freshmen in scoring (19.3 ppg) and is third in assists (168). Should he declare this spring, Russell is likely a top-five NBA Draft pick. NBADraftExpress.com has him third in its most recent mock draft.

VCU’s game plan will likely dedicate a chunk of attention to slowing down Russell, who has shown little difficulty adjusting to college basketball. A deft ball handler, Russell has also hit 90 three-pointers this year and leads Ohio State in rebounding (5.6 rpg). But it’s his passing skills that have people talking. From one-handed, laser bounce feeds to eye-popping spin passes in traffic, Russell’s vision, and the ability to get the ball into small spaces makes him especially dangerous.

VCU’s Michael Gilmore can vouch for Russell’s skills. They were AAU teammates with Each1 Teach1 in Florida. Gilmore soon realized that Russell wasn’t like other point guards.

“There would be times [in the huddle] where he’d just yell at me, roll, roll, roll after I set screens for him because after a couple of times where I didn’t think I was open,” Gilmore said. “I started trusting him with it. He’s a very good passer.”

Gilmore also has first-hand knowledge of how Russell’s scoring and passing ability play off of each other.

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FIXED IN A SNAP; RAMS FULFILL PROMISE TO FALLEN STAR

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VCU senior Briante Weber celebrates after the Rams topped Dayton 71-65 for the Atlantic 10 Championship.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Amid the chaotic celebration, Briante Weber hobbled over to the ladder. With the help of his teammates, he ascended toward the rim for the first time in weeks, and snipped the last remaining loop of the net. With the snap of the scissors, he freed the net from the metal rim and officially cut VCU loose of its late-season quagmire.

Weber’s symbolic act punctuated a dizzying VCU sprint to its first Atlantic 10 Championship. The Rams, preseason favorites relegated to the No. 5 seed after losing six of their final 11 regular season games, shocked the league with four wins in four days to claim the title. The final victory came Sunday, as the Rams held off Dayton 71-65 in a thrilling A-10 Championship Game at Barclays Center.

At the final buzzer, Weber, his right knee immobilized following season-ending knee surgery, hopped to midcourt to celebrate before breaking down in tears as he was mobbed by teammates.

It capped a week that redefined VCU’s season. Last week, the Rams were a team struggling to find an identity in the long shadow cast by Weber’s Jan. 31 torn ACL. For four years he had been the engine of VCU’s high-energy brand of basketball and the emotional backbone of the program. But as abruptly as Weber’s career was cut tragically short, VCU found its championship form.

“Words really can’t explain how proud I am of these guys,” said Weber, the first player to win three A-10 Defensive Player of the Year awards. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster for us, when I went out with an injury, and then us winning, losing, everybody hopping off the bandwagon and so forth.

“But just know behind closed doors we had our talks and all our emotional stuff; when we step in between those lines, from March to the last bit of February, we kind of found ourselves again and that’s what we need to keep building on that right now.”

Weber’s loss was devastating to VCU, which was ranked 14th at the time. But Sunday’s victory – one that seemed improbable as recently as Wednesday – allowed the Rams fulfill a promise they made to their fallen point guard.

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A-10 CHAMPIONSHIP VIDEO ROUND-UP

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RAMS TURN ON A DIME, TOPPLE TOP-SEEDED DAVIDSON

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Mo Alie-Cox (left) provided 18 points and eight rebounds as VCU knocked off regular season champion Davidson 93-73 in the A-10 semifinals.

Mo Alie-Cox (left) provided 18 points and eight rebounds as VCU knocked off regular season champion Davidson 93-73 in the A-10 semifinals.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Momentum is a funny, nebulous concept, but if there was ever proof of how quickly it can shift, it was VCU’s impressive – and for many, unexpected – 93-73 upset of regular season champ Davidson Saturday in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals at Barclays Center.

Left for dead a little over a week ago by some prognosticators, VCU is back to wreaking havoc on brackets. The Rams are storming into the A-10 title game for the third straight year Sunday, where they’ll take on Dayton. The Flyers topped Rhode Island in Saturday’s semifinal nightcap. It will be VCU’s fifth straight appearance in a conference championship game.

Just days ago, VCU’s victory would have been considered as unlikely as a Knicks winning streak. At times, the Rams made it look easy against Davidson, hitting 12 three-pointers on the way to victory.

The Rams didn’t just beat a red-hot Davidson team Saturday, avenging an 82-55 blowout loss on March 5, VCU dominated the Wildcats for long stretches, and displayed championship form. It was Davidson’s first loss in 11 games, and VCU’s best performance since losing point guard Briante Weber to injury on Jan. 31. VCU’s 93 points were the most by a Davidson opponent in three months.

“We played with a lot of enthusiasm today. We wanted to go out there and attack from the get-go. We had our ups and downs and responded pretty well today, and we’re going to have to do that for the rest of the season,” said senior Treveon Graham, who finished with 18 points.

It had been nine days since VCU and Davidson last met, but it might as well have been nine years.

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VIDEO: VCU UPENDS DAVIDSON 93-73

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VCU FINDS A LITTLE OF ITS OLD SELF; HAS LAST LAUGH ON RICHMOND

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Melvin Johnson hit five threes and scored 23 points in VCU's 70-67 win over Richmond Friday.

Melvin Johnson hit five threes and scored 23 points in VCU’s 70-67 win over Richmond Friday.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It was a game against Richmond that originally jolted VCU into its darkest stretch under Shaka Smart, and it might have taken a game against Richmond to shock the Rams back to life.

After two crushing losses to the Spiders this season – a third if you count Briante Weber’s knee – VCU found a way to look a little more like itself Friday on the way to a heart-pounding, come-from-behind, 70-67 Atlantic 10 Quarterfinal victory at Barclays Center.

The win sends the fifth-seeded Rams back to the A-10 semifinals, where they’ll face top-seeded Davidson at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

Bronx native Melvin Johnson enjoyed a strong shooting performance for the second straight night and finished with 23 points for the Rams. He hit 5-of-6 threes in the first half as VCU grabbed a 37-36 lead. When his jumper abandoned him in the second half, Johnson found other ways to bolster the Rams, including a steal and breakaway layup and later an assist on a go-ahead 3-pointer as VCU scored its biggest triumph, emotionally and practically, since January.

It was a VCU victory with a cathartic bent.

The Rams were nationally ranked and in the midst of a 12-game winning streak when a game with the rival Spiders on Jan. 31 altered the course of the season. Not only did VCU lose that game at the Siegel Center, it also lost Weber to a torn ACL in the waning moments. The Rams closed the regular season with a 5-6 stretch and lost heartbreakers to St. Bonaventure (at the buzzer), La Salle (in double overtime) and again, Richmond (also in double overtime). Once 7-0 in league play, the Rams slipped to the A-10 Tournament’s No. 5 seed.

VCU has spent the last six weeks trying to find itself without Weber, who was not only the Rams’ starting point guard, but their emotional cornerstone.

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FORDHAM POSTGAME

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JUSTIN TILLMAN BLOCKED SHOT

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