Sayonara to Cinderella

Shaka Smart recognizes that his basketball team is no longer considered a Cinderella story.

Colin Kennedy
Sports Editor 

Since its historic run to the Final Four in 2010-11, the VCU men’s basketball team has jumped conferences and continued winning. Now more than ever, the Rams are reaping the benefits of success.

With three consecutive 27-win seasons and six NCAA Tournament wins in the last three years,  head coach Shaka Smart has transformed VCU basketball from a quiet competitor in the Colonial Athletic Association to a national contender in the Atlantic 10. Smart’s six tournament victories in the past 36 months are more than coaches Mike Krzyewski and Tom Izzo can claim in that time.

People across the nation are taking notice.

First, the national attention paid off on the recruiting trail. A year after VCU stunned Kansas in the Elite Eight, Smart picked up his first pair of four-star recruits in Jordan Burgess and Melvin Johnson. JeQuan Lewis joined the club in 2012 and the trend continued this past summer when a trio of four-star prospects in Jonathan Williams, Michael Gilmore and Terry Larrier committed to give the Rams arguably their best recruiting class ever.

VCU’s 2014 class is ranked seventh in the country, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, ahead of college basketball powerhouses Kentucky, Kansas and Duke.

Media outlets and television sponsors are taking notice as well. Just one year after the Rams set a school record by playing in 18 nationally televised games, VCU will eclipse their own record this upcoming season with a schedule featuring 21 such contests.

Among the beneficiaries of VCU’s rapid rise is the man leading the effort. Shaka Smart has been a target to fill coaching vacancies in each of the past three offseasons. Most recently, 11-time national champion UCLA reached out to Smart about coaching its team, but the loyal head coach inked an extension to stay with the Rams through 2023 at a discounted price.

This year the Rams add Burgess, who redshirted his freshman year, and Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon to a squad that returns three of its five starters from a season ago.

After earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and losing a second round matchup against the eventual national runner-up, Michigan, VCU enters the season as a consensus top-25 team. The Rams are ranked No. 13, according to ESPN.com.

All of these variables have contributed to a change in perception across the country. No longer is VCU the Cinderella team underestimated by opponents. Very rarely will the Rams be considered the underdog in 2013-14.

Smart confirmed VCU’s change in position at Atlantic 10 media day last week.

“We want to make sure we’re the hunter,” Smart told CBS Sports’ Jeff Borzello. “There are going to be some people coming after us.”

In fact, Smart’s club has been chosen to win the A-10 in its second season in the conference. Senior Juvonte Reddic and junior Treveon Graham have been named to the preseason A-10 first team and junior Briante Weber was named to the conference’s all-defensive team.

The conference has said goodbye to Butler, Charlotte, Temple and Xavier. But last year’s conference champions, the Saint Louis Billikens, along with Sweet 16 contender La Salle remain around to pose a threat to VCU’s quest for distinction in the A-10.

With less than a month until the season tips off, a few questions linger with the Rams, who will have to replace their starting backcourt from a season ago. After Troy Daniels and Darius Theus graduated last spring, junior Briante Weber, who led the nation in steals per game a season ago, was expected to assume the point guard responsibilities.

However, Weber’s aggressive defensive nature and tendency to commit reach-in fouls has lent consideration to the idea of senior Rob Brandenberg filling the role.

A combination of the two ball-handlers is a likely approach Smart may use during the early stages of the season, but the Rams’ talent and depth shouldn’t be an issue at any point over the course of the year.

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