Summer Buzz: VCU Rams

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
11:58
AM ET
Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Virginia Commonwealth.

Yesterday, Jay Bilas took his Twitter game to a whole 'nother level. The usually Jeezy-obsessed analyst posted two photos of himself (and his dog!) wearing the infamous "Whatchu talkin' bout Bilas?" t-shirts that circulated after VCU made its deep, defiant run in the NCAA tournament and proved Bilas -- and basically everyone else in college hoops -- that they truly belonged. Today, Jay wrote that he believes the Rams are primed to join Butler, Gonzaga, Xavier and George Mason as mid-major royalty. It's difficult to disagree.

Shaka Smart
Brad Miller/US PresswireWith coach Shaka Smart at the helm, who's to say the VCU Rams won't make it back to the Final Four?
After all, as unlikely as VCU's 2011 Final Four appearance was -- and it was really, really, really unlikely -- the Rams didn't exactly come from nowhere. Before Shaka Smart was hired in 2009, his predecessor, Anthony Grant, took VCU to the NCAA tournament in two of his three seasons, the most memorable of which saw the Rams upset Duke thanks to the last-second heroics of guard Eric Maynor. Before that, former Oklahoma coach and now-Duke assistant Jeff Capel earned his job with the Sooners by building a solidly competitive program in Richmond.

Now, after a national profile boost and an underdog story to tell the grandkids, VCU has the chance to earn its spot among the perennial mid-major darlings. As well it should.

Just as difficult as denying VCU's rise, however, is figuring out just how good this team can be in 2012. Why? Because I'm still not sure how good they were in 2011.

If data is your guide, VCU's performance in the NCAA tournament -- when they became a giant-killing, lights out offensive behemoth -- was the exception to the team's rule. For much of the season, VCU struggled. Even after they rolled through Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas on their way to the Final Four, the Rams still ranked just No. 52 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. Before the NCAA tournament, VCU was 59th in offense and 143rd in defense in Pomeroy's respective tallies. After the tournament, they ranked No. 32 and No. 86. There's a reason this team was in the First Four, a reason so many criticized their selection, and a reason Bilas got a t-shirt in his honor. This thing was crazy.

To further muddy the prospectus, VCU lost its three most important players in the tournament run -- leading scorer Jamie Skeen and guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozell -- to graduation this spring. Among the returners, hoops fans will almost immediately recognize Bradford Burgess, whose lights-out shooting gave the Rams another major weapon in their constant March onslaught. Other than that, VCU is starting from scratch.

Smart gave ESPN Insider's Eric Angevine the skinny on the newcomers, and there are some encouraging appraisals in there. But as expected, none of VCU's 2011 recruits are high-profile, top-100 players. Moreover, none of them looks likely to fill the team's biggest need: a guard that can mimic Rodriguez's ability to attack defenses off the dribble and find open shooters around the perimeter.

In other words, in the short term, the safe bet is that VCU is going to struggle. Even if the NCAA tournament was the "real" VCU, and not some random, stars-aligned miracle of the heavens, that's what happens when you lose this many key players and when you haven't had quite enough time to reap the recruiting benefits a trip to the Final Four ought to yield.

But the short-term is only one portion of this picture. The biggest takeaway for VCU fans this offseason came not from the new arrivals on campus but from the most important returner: Coach Smart himself.

It's not that Smart didn't have tantalizing offers. Georgia Tech, Missouri, NC State -- any of these quality high-major programs would have loved to welcome the charismatic coach into their basketball offices. But Smart, much like Richmond coach Chris Mooney, pulled a Brad Stevens. He didn't jump at the first big opportunity. He didn't search for the largest paycheck out there. He decided to stay put and continue to build on the success he had carved out in his first two seasons.

That he did so at all says something. That he decided to do so despite the loss Skeen, Rodriguez and Rozell is another commentary entirely. Smart is not afraid of the challenge, and he isn't looking for an easy way up the coaching ladder. He wants to win at VCU. Given what we saw from his team in 2011, and given how well Smart guided them throughout their remarkable rise, that desire is the most important positive factor toward ensuring Bilas's prediction of VCU's arrival as mid-major royalty.

The results may not come this season. VCU may be in for a bit of rebuild. But as long as Smart is around, showing anger-inspiring videos and defiantly challenging the media doubters, the Rams' long-term prospects look just fine.

Then again, who's to say VCU can't make waves this season? Remember what happened the last time we doubted the Rams? Right. Lesson learned.

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