Come the end of the season, will The Garden bear fruit?
That’s the question that remains for VCU men’s basketball team and their post-season aspirations after downing 11-time National Champion UCLA 89-85 in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden Friday.
Theoretically, the win— which came in the tournament’s consolation match after falling to No. 24 Tennessee on Wednesday— counts the same as any other game. However a victory over one of the country’s most celebrated schools, which came before a national television audience in one of the nation’s most celebrated arenas, adds obvious intangibles.
There’s the increased experience and expertise that comes along with playing teams in the upper tier of college basketball. There’s also the increased exposure that should continue to enhance VCU’s standing as one of the top mid-major universities in the country. But above all, the win means the Rams will have taken at least one major scalp come time the NCAA Selection Committee reviews the Rams’ resume on Selection Sunday.
“Being able to win our second game against UCLA, I think that will really pay dividends,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “[It will help] both in terms of experience for our guys but also our resume.”
It’s a resume that will need every victory they can get. That’s because the team’s schedule this season is hardly neither terrible nor terrific; the Rams will face a few teams from such power conferences as the Big East, SEC and ACC, but those squads are projected to finish towards the lower half of them and thus won’t be given as much credit.
So, why would a tournament that came towards the beginning of the season bear any impact on it come the end?
“You’re talking about three out of the top 10 programs in the country,” Smart said in reference to the tournament participants. “Just getting a chance to be here and be around those coaches and those players [is big].”
Just how big remains to be seen, but if you ask senior forward Jamie Skeen— who was the team’s star of the show with 23 points, nine rebounds and two blocks— he’ll tell you beating the Bruins is no mean feat.
“It’s a great experience playing a great team like UCLA,” Skeen said. ‘They’re one of the most winning teams in the world, or the United States, so it’s just a great team to beat.”
It was also a great time for Skeen to step up. With team leader, senior point guard Joey Rodriguez having struggled in the previous game vs. Tennessee— thanks in no small part to a reoccurrence of an ankle injury— Skeen was whom the team turned to when the game first started. The Wake Forest transfer scored the game’s first six points and indeed was so dominant that he registered double-digits in the point’s column before even five minutes had elapsed.
Such was the dominance of Skeen on the night. And, with the loss of former player Larry Sanders to the NBA, these are the sorts of performances the team will need if they’re to have a shot at an at-large bid come early March.
Regardless, though, nothing can take away from a win that amounted to at least some form of redemption for the team’s one-point loss to the Bruins in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
“Every body [on the team] gave us positive production, Smart said. “They stepped up and showed a lot of fight.”