All good things eventually come to an end. For VCU, this season’s end will mark four years since its Cinderella run to the Final Four. There isn’t one player on the current roster who was around, and the only remaining coach on the staff is head man Shaka Smart. By no means is making it to the national semifinal something to simply brush off, but the program is in a completely different place from where it was in 2011 and it’s time for the fan base to recognize that.
In the eyes of many respected college basketball experts, VCU has long since shed their underdog status. All those boasting about the four NCAA tournament wins from four years ago must cease, as it only downplays the success that Smart and co. have experienced ever since.
Starting with the 2010-11 season, the program has seen new heights. Winning has become the norm, as the Rams haven’t suffered 10 losses in any of the last three seasons. Smart has become a household name, seemingly the country’s hottest coaching candidate every year. Lastly and most importantly, the program has created an identity for itself nationally. Havoc isn’t just a style of play but a brand, complete with celebrity endorsers.
What VCU has done in recent seasons has been impressive, but living off of that Final Four appearance forever reveals complacency. If truly becoming a staple in the mind of college basketball enthusiasts is the goal, there is still much to be done. Every year a team shocks the world and makes an unexpected run in the NCAA tournament. It’s a program’s stability that really counts.
In order to illustrate why this is the case, consider the difference between George Mason University and a program like Gonzaga University.
George Mason’s run in 2006 rivals that of VCU’s five years later. The Patriots were seeded 11th in the Washington, D.C., region, one by one knocking down perennial powers Michigan State Univerity, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wichita State University and University of Connecticut. The fairy-tale story captured the minds of almost everyone and for a couple weekends the entire country was draped in green and gold. Fast-forward eight years and outside of a fancy display in the Patriot Center, there is virtually nothing to show for it. Sure, GMU experienced 15 minutes of fame, which most programs never get, but last season the Patriots were victors in just 11 out of their 31 games. The window leading to sustained success and national relevancy has all but closed.
Now compare that to what head coach Mark Few has done at Gonzaga. The Bulldogs burst onto the scene in 1999 as a 10th seed in the Phoenix, Arizona region, knocking off three favorites on their way to an Elite Eight. Eventually luck ran out on the Zags as they ran into future NBA star Richard Hamilton and the would-be champion Connecticut Huskies, but none of that matters. What’s really important is what happened after that tournament.
In the 15 years since that initial introduction to the public, Gonzaga has become annual contenders. The Bulldogs consistently play their way deep into the month of March, and in turn college basketball’s most important personalities recognize the program as a mainstay. To this day, Few never felt the honor cutting down the nets, like former Patriot head coach Jim Larranaga. However, the Bulldogs have earned everlasting respect and that means more than getting hot for one special run.
VCU is in a position to live the best of both worlds between remaining a relevant contender over the past three seasons, and actually being lucky enough to make a Final Four appearance. With all of that being said, the time has come for the Rams faithful to make a full mental transition from the upset-minded mid-major to the startup program on the rise.
Even as well as recent campaigns have gone, nothing is set in stone, but the pieces are in place. Players are getting more talented, coming fresh off of two consecutive recruiting classes ranked in the top-25 for the first time in school history. Facilities are getting nicer, as preparations have been made for a brand new $25 million dollar complex for the team to practice in, and most importantly, the Rams have locked down the brains of the operation in Shaka Smart for the next 14 seasons.
With these things in mind, while obviously still being steps behind the likes of a Duke University or the University of California, Los Angeles, VCU is sitting at the big-boy table now. So rather than continuously living in 2011, the program and its supporters’ goal should be to practice taking a brand new perspective, by getting used to life in the national spotlight.