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Monday, September 30, 2013
VCU leaves Cinderella behind

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

It's easy to see why VCU is so good at its HAVOC defense. The Rams' coach excels at the art of deflection.

Ask Shaka Smart to talk about his team's place in the Atlantic 10 hierarchy and he'll happily filibuster his way to a league-wide PSA, touching on La Salle's Sweet 16 run last season, Saint Louis' league title and up-and-coming UMass.

Those are all good, relevant points, but they ignore the real truth: In just its second season in the Atlantic 10, VCU is the conference Glam Team.

The conference realignment shuffle pushed Butler, Temple and Xavier on to new addresses, leaving behind a conference that is still good and viable, but lacks the name-brand cachet those programs provided.

Except in one place, and that's in Richmond. VCU is the league's national program, the one with the bold reputation and the popular coach. It may seem like the Rams have been around forever, but really theirs is a stratospheric rise. Just three seasons ago, VCU was a nice, little engine that could story, from First Four to Final Four out of the Colonial Athletic Association.

Shaka Smart
Shaka Smart has built a successful program by identifying and recruiting talent that fits in his system.

Then two seasons later, partnered with Butler, the Rams added even more panache to an already established A-10.

Now they are the star attraction.

It is a terrific problem to have, but it has the chance to really be a problem. And Smart knows it.

Despite his attempts to deflect the attention, Smart is keenly aware that he's at a very critical point in his career and really VCU's future.

The top-notch recruits are asking in now; the media is gushing about how good his team is; he's on the short list for every coaching vacancy, especially now that Brad Stevens has moved on ("What the heck? How could he just leave me?" Smart joked), and he has to balance new opportunities for the Rams versus the old coaching cliché of staying with what brought you to the pinnacle.

"We have to make sure that within our program, we have the mentality of the hunter,'' Smart said. "One of the core values we talk about is enthusiasm and that's probably different than a lot of other places. But we want to be the most enthusiastic team in the country. That's what we can control.''

But that control can spin wildly away, even for the most level-headed coaches. Plenty of teams have gotten caught in the crosshairs of success, blinded by the treasure trove in front of them.

Last season, as his team readied to return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus, Villanova coach Jay Wright admitted that the Wildcats hit the postseason skids in part because he got caught up in his program's success.

"We got into the high-profile, one-and-done guys,'' Wright said. "They're good guys but they didn't fit the program. I think we all learned that Villanova is built for a certain kind of guy.''

There is, however, one example of a team that never strayed from itself and that's who Smart went to for advice.

Mark Few has built Gonzaga up from a nice, little March Cinderella to a national power. The Bulldogs have changed in perception and opportunity, but not in their essence. Their players are more talented but still from the same mold; the Zags are more widely known but still known for the same things.

The two coaches have spoken frequently since VCU's Final Four run. Few is convinced that Smart won't fall into the success trap -- "He's as grounded and as solid as an individual I've ever met in coaching. I don't worry about him at all,'' Few said.

Still, he offered the younger coach a priceless outline of what to expect -- that the recruits would come before the splashy scheduling opportunities; that the road games would be impossibly loud no matter how empty the gyms looked on tape; and most critically, that while everything around him changed, his job was to make sure absolutely nothing changed.

"It's all about patience,'' Few said. "On the one end, you want to hurry up and make it happen. On the other end, you have to be selective and not lose sight of what put you there in the first place.''

Few's path has proven to be almost presciently exact. Already the recruits are asking in to VCU, more high-caliber players than Smart's had a chance to speak with before.

Next year's class currently is rated 15th by ESPNU.

Mark Few
No one understands VCU's trajectory better than Gonzaga's Mark Few. His Bulldogs made the same rise the Rams are experiencing now.

But those players -- Terry Larrier, Jonathan Williams, Mike Gilmore and Justin Tillman -- are merely the same players Smart's always recruited, just with a few more stars next to their names.

"We need to make sure we get the same type of DNA in our basketball players,'' Smart said. "Maybe now we can get someone who is a little further along, but we have to get the same type of player. We can't get away from the Briante Weber. Ever.''

Few never got away from his prototype.

Kevin Pangos was labeled the next Steve Nash in Canada, which made him a big get for Gonzaga. Yet he's also a heady, smart, sweet-shooting point guard that Few can trust to run a team. Which made him exactly right for Few.

"At some point, you have to trust your staff and your own evaluations,'' Few said. "You can't worry about rankings. Discerning is the hardest part. You need to achieve that happy medium of high-level talent without sacrificing character and you still want to be able to develop guys like you always did.''

The hardest part, maybe, is the part you can't control and that, Few said, is where patience is a real virtue.

As Team Glam in the Atlantic 10, a team sure to be on everyone's preseason top 25, VCU will be expected to play a top-level schedule.

And with a more unknown quantity Atlantic 10, the Rams need a top-level schedule to get bonus points from the selection committee.

VCU would love to accommodate.

Just try convincing teams to come to Richmond.

"We feel from an RPI standpoint we should be relatively attractive to play a home-and-home with, but we just haven't reached that point that Gonzaga reached, that Xavier reached, that Brad [Stevens] reached at Butler,'' Smart said. "It's still not OK to play us home-and-home.''

It will be eventually, Few said.

There's just no telling when eventually may come.

"We went to the Elite Eight and we thought immediately it's going to happen,'' Few said. "Then we followed that up with the Sweet 16 and you think, 'Surely now.' It still didn't happen. Then another Sweet 16, but still no. Think it was about the time we got Adam [Morrison] that it was like, OK, you're accepted into our club.''

Until the invitation is extended and VCU can build up a national schedule like Gonzaga has, the Rams will have to contend with the other side of the scheduling coin -- being everybody's favorite target in the Atlantic 10.

La Salle wrote the final lines of its 2012-13 story in March, but penned the first chapter in January, when the Explorers beat Butler and VCU in back-to-back games.

After beating the Rams, La Salle's Ramon Galloway called it, "the biggest step probably in LaSalle program history."

And now Butler is gone, along with Temple and Xavier.

Sure, Smart is right. La Salle and Saint Louis could very well be on their way to joining the Establishment. UMass might be on the cusp of a return to glory. Richmond might get back its mojo. Ditto Dayton.

But those are coulds and maybes and mights.

The only sure thing in the Atlantic 10 is VCU.

And that's a good problem to have.