HOUSTON | Two and a half weeks ago, Virginia Commonwealth University’s basketball team crammed in a dark hallway that smelled of greasy pizza in front of the locker room. Bags piled in front of them. There wasn’t enough room to extend legs or pass through.
Not one television camera or microphone was in sight 40 minutes after VCU upset Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Contrast that to Saturday night, when media of every shape and size filled VCU’s locker room after the Final Four loss to Butler at Reliant Stadium. An unlikely five-game run transformed VCU from an anonymous mid-major to college basketball’s biggest story.
“I’m going to talk about this run for the rest of my life,” said senior Jamie Skeen, whose inside-out play carried VCU in the tournament. “I’m going to be telling my grandchildren about it.”
Over 400 media requests, including 227 for coach Shaka Smart, flooded VCU in the past two weeks. Police escorts for the team bus became the norm. Chatty point guard Joey Rodriguez turned into an interview staple. Even the gyrating, strip-teasing leader of VCU’s pep band, Ryan Kopacsi, drew a procession of cameras. And the criticism that greeted VCU’s inclusion in the tournament turned to wonder over what the plucky team from Richmond would do next.
“I think we’ve played as good of basketball as anyone in the country,” Smart said. “Everyone talks about the way we’ve utilized the media doubting us. I made the decision at the beginning of the NCAA tournament that we could either ignore what people were saying or go right back at them.”
Clips of broadcasters picking VCU to lose became part of the team’s pregame routine during tournament wins over Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. The wins made VCU only the third No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four and the first double-digit seed to win four games by double digits.
Smart’s motivational ploys became part of the show, too. There was the calendar he burned at practice March 1 after the team dropped four of five games to end the regular season. Or VCU’s hustle drill, where Smart and his assistants dive on the floor for loose balls.
And Smart, 56-20 in two years at VCU, is the team’s biggest question mark. Only 33 years old, the tournament run made him the country’s most sought-after young coach. Will he leave VCU for an upper-division job, like predecessors Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant?
With openings like Missouri and N.C. State, the easy answer would be yes, particularly when VCU’s entire basketball budget is less than some head coaches’ salaries. But Smart doesn’t always take the obvious path, like turning down Harvard in favor of attending Kenyon College in Ohio.
Saturday night, Smart didn’t sound like a coach planning his departure.
“We’re going to continue to build,” Smart said. “We’ve got a lot of things we still want to accomplish. This was a terrific run. Are we capable of doing it again? Sure. No question.”
But coaching a team that finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association to within a few favorable rolls of the national title game attracts attention. To do that, VCU tightened its defense, improved its 3-point shooting from 35 percent during the regular season to 42 percent in the tournament and presented matchup problems for each opponent with Smart’s “havoc” philosophy of up-tempo offense and full-court pressure.
Each opponent, that is, until Butler. The shots that rolled in all tournament - like junior Bradford Burgess’ layup with 7 seconds left in overtime to beat Florida State - rolled off Saturday night.
The sting of the loss for the team given a 1.2 percent chance of simply making the Sweet 16 obscured what it accomplished.