A season in the shadow of greatness: after the Final Four VCU finds success

On Monday night #1-seed Kentucky beat #2-seed Kansas, and the 2011-2012 NCAA college basketball season officially ended. It feels as if VCU’s open practice was just yesterday. To many, this season may very well hide in the shadow of last year’s towering achievements, but the 2011-2012 season is one of the most important seasons in VCU history and in many ways, the Black & Gold exceded expectations.

On Monday night #1-seed Kentucky beat #2-seed Kansas, and the 2011-2012 NCAA college basketball season officially ended. It feels as if VCU’s open practice, exhibition game, and slow start were just yesterday. To many, this season may very well hide in the shadow of last year’s towering achievements, but the 2011-2012 season is one of the most important seasons in VCU history, and in many ways the Black & Gold exceeded expectations.

The Ram’s transformation from 3-3 on November 27th to 29-6 on March 15th is nothing short of spectacular. Along the way the Rams broke NCAA records, conference records, and VCU records while leading the nation in steals and coming within seconds of the Sweet 16. As the Rams succeeded on the court, Richmond tuned in or turned out in record numbers and some Ram fans even found ways to cheer for VCU in Portland, Oregon.

The only people who seemed disappointed with the Rams were…the Rams. Shaka Smart and Co. have clearly set the Sweet 16 as the standard of success, and while the young squad has many reasons to be proud, 11 players are returning next season hungrier than ever. Smart’s greatest skill is not his ability to make players want success but his ability to make them believe that they can achieve it. There wasn’t a player on the court all season who didn’t believe that VCU could beat any team in the country.

The rest of the nation is quickly discovering that there is no scarier underdog than the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams.

36 games later

Short of winning the national championship, almost every VCU record has been broken and every goal achieved during 34-year-old Shaka Smart’s 112-game tenure as head coach. Still, was last year a fluke? Can VCU really compete on a national level and consistently win NCAA tournament games? Yes, and if Shaka Smart’s “HAVOC” can thrive when executed by underclassmen, then there isn’t a team in the country that shouldn’t be genuinely scared.

Entering this season there were a lot of question marks. On April 2nd 2011, VCU lost to Butler, and suddenly, VCU was without four of its five most important players. Then in June, rising senior Toby Veal departed, and the Rams were left with the 9th youngest roster in Division I basketball.

When the Rams suited up in November, they had lost 61% of last year’s scoring, 51% of rebounding, 68% of assists, and 58% of minutes. Statistically Bradford Burgess was the only returning major contributor, and to make things worse he started the season on the worst shooting slump of his career.

36 games later the Rams had achieved one of their biggest goals of the season by creating a new identity independent of last year’s magical run. The fans and media have come a long way since November when they were preoccupied with reliving last March’s magic. Instead of Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez, names like Briante Weber and Treveon Graham have become commonplace. Fans quickly learned that this year’s defensive juggernaut can be even more fun to watch than last year’s high octane offense.

For the record book

  • The Rams won a school record 29 games.
  • VCU’s 381 steals annihilated the CAA record for steals previously held by Old Dominion University with 329.
  • The Rams currently own a CAA-record 18 consecutive sellouts. VCU, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, and Gonzaga were the only schools to sell-out every home game this season.
  • This was the first season that the Rams posted two 8+ game winning streaks.


Most Satisfying Victory: VCU over Drexel in the CAA tournament finals

Beating Wichita State was a fantastic moment, but getting revenge over Drexel in front of thousands of Ram fans was special. While VCU will most likely continue to make the tournament and face great opponents, VCU vs. Drexel is poised to be one of the best rivalries over the next few seasons.

Most heart-breaking moment: Sherrod Wright’s buzzer beating 3-pointer

Beating a rival feels incredible. Watching a rival shoot 4-4, including 3-3 from three-point range, in the final 30 seconds while VCU misses free-throws is devastating. The only thing that could possibly have made it any worse was a buzzer beater…

Toughest Loss: VCU loses a heart-breaker to Indiana

This year’s Rams had an incredible ability to compensate for lack of offensive firepower with explosive defense–and explosive isn’t typically used to describe defense. It worked, except for when it didn’t. VCU looked poised to defy the odds and return to the Sweet 16, but the youthful team only scored four points in the final 12:28 against Indiana. It’s tough watching basketball when the ball isn’t going in the hoop, especially in March.

Best offensive game: NCAA record-setting Bradford Burgess leads VCU past GMU

The Ram’s second half left a lot to be desired, but VCU was up 22-0 at one point and the Rams started the game 7-7 from 3-point range. Fans may never again see such a hot start.

Best defensive game: The Rams grow up quick against USF

USF isn’t known for offense, but the Bulls ended up being a 2-win NCAA-tournament team from the Big East. USF’s Anthony Collins learned an important lesson that night: VCU has a knack for making freshman point guards look like freshman point guards.

Looking forward

Even with Bradford Burgess graduating and Reco McCarter departing, the Rams return 84% of their minutes played, 80% of their scoring, 85% of their rebounding, and 89% of their steals next season. For the first time in his tenure as head coach, Shaka Smart will have a team made entirely of players he recruited, and HAVOC will undoubtedly be at an all-time high. The core of the Ram’s aggressive defense will return and development, training, and recruiting will leave the Rams faster, stronger, and deeper than ever (next year’s bench will be the marvel of the conference). Offensively Troy Daniels, Rob Brandenberg, and Treveon Graham will all take the next step with their 3-point shooting, and Juvonte Reddic has the potential to be one of the best players in the CAA.

The future is very bright for the VCU Rams. It’s impossible to really know what’s next for the Black & Gold, but VCU never fails to put on a show.

To stay up to date on all things VCU Basketball related, follow @rvaRAMnews on twitter or join us on facebook.

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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