VCU Rams: America’s new College Basketball Sweethearts?

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This NCAA Tournament second weekend features four double digit seeds, three of them within one region. The Butler Bulldogs are back in the sweet sixteen, but it’s hard to actually consider them a cinderella, even though they’re in a mid-major conference.

The city of Richmond, Virginia (mighty metropolis, urbane, sophisticated, international, cosmopolitan mecca that it is) has two teams still left in the college basketball big dance. That’s as many as the Big East or Big Ten and twice as many as the Big 12. But it’s not the Richmond Spiders, but the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams out of the Colonial Athletic Association who appear to be America’s sweethearts now.

We all love a good underdog story, and the VCU Rams are the closest thing to a Cinderella that we have going right now.

By Paul M. Banks

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One of the last teams to get into the tourney, their status as a mid-major with 11 losses made them the target of much criticism. Yet here they are, advancing to their first sweet 16 in school history.

“We had a game earlier this year where an assistant coach came out in the newspaper and said that we couldn’t defend, and we went on that game, and we held that team to under 50 points. So I learned very early in the year about our team that they like a challenge, especially if it’s posed by somebody that they can perceive as the enemy, or the opposition,” head coach Shaka Smart said.

“We love ESPN. We love being on ESPN. We love the guys at ESPN. But let’s face it, those guys questioned us a little bit and our credibility as an NCAA team, and I thought the way that our guys responded to it, it was something that we could use as a motivating factor. Today, before we had lunch, we sat down and watched a video of Joe Lenardi saying we couldn’t guard him. He said over and over in the video, they can’t guard me, they can’t guard me.”

This is the first time since 2007 that two teams from the same city have reached the sweet sixteen. (USC and UCLA). The Trojans and Bruins also did it in 2001. This may be the best VCU team in history, but they didn’t exactly come from nowhere. This commuter school located in the state capital won the CBI last year, they’ve reached the round of 32 six times and they upset #6 seed Duke in 2007.

“When we started the year, we gave our team a motto, and it was ‘our time right now.’ The purpose of that motto was, for our seniors, for our older players, to understand — Eric Maynor is in the NBA, Larry Sanders is now in the NBA, (with the Milwaukee Bucks) this is your team. This is our time,” Smart said.

“I think our group over the last couple weeks, our conference tournament and this run in the NCAA Tournament has really sunk their teeth into living that motto.”

They crushed their first three opponents: USC , Georgetown and the #3 seed Purdue Boilermakers by 49 points combined. They are just the second double digit seed to win 3 games by 10+ points in same tourney. So far, they’ve been the most impressive team in the tourney and Florida State will have their hands full Friday night. The Rams marquee star is their coach Shaka Smart, as man who is as aptly named as possible. He’s been “shocking” higher seeded teams left and right.

And he’s pretty intelligent too. He was accepted at Harvard.

“I really wanted to go somewhere where I felt comfortable and where I had a great relationship with the basketball coach. So that made my decision easy. I went to a little school in Ohio called Kenyon College that there was a coach there that took a great interest in me. He turned into basically probably the closest thing I’ve had to a father figure.
So it was an easy decision. A lot of people said I was nuts to turn down the Ivy League schools I got into, but I think I got a pretty good education, and I was able to get a good start in coaching because of it,” Smart said.

And of course, VCU’s recent success has made Smart a hot coaching prospect. He’s already rumored to be a leader for the Tennessee coaching vacancy. He was of course elusive (and understandably so) in answering the media on this.

“That’s a good question. I had not even thought about that. I guess I should put some thought into it. We’re just so focused on what we’re doing…Those guys got to do their job, the media. They’ve got to say the things they have to say. You know, March and April is all about the coaching carousel and all that stuff. That couldn’t be further from my mind or, I hope, anyone’s mind within our program.”

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net , a Midwest webzine. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

He does a regular guest spot each week for Chicagoland Sports Radio.com You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank

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