It’s safe to say that it’s been a long and prosperous journey over the past two years for the Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team and its head coach, Shaka Smart ’99.
Last year, Smart guided the Rams to their first Final Four appearance in the school’s 174-year history. Before then, the team had never made it past the second round. Initially, their inclusion in the tournament was criticized by many, since the Rams earned an at-large bid created by the bracket’s expansion to 68 teams. But it didn’t take long for VCU to prove the critics wrong and show their mettle. First they beat the University of Southern California in the opening round 59-46. Then, they trampled legendary basketball power Georgetown University in the first round 74-56. The Rams followed it up by pounding Purdue University 94-76, fighting past Florida State University 72-71 in an overtime nail-biter, and sending the number one-seeded University of Kansas packing 71-61 to make it to the Final Four. Touted as a mid-major because they belong to a smaller conference than the Big Ten, et. al., the Rams finally lost in the national semifinal game against another mid-major, the Butler University Bulldogs, 70-62. The team’s impressive performance, in addition to giving recognition to the power and skill of mid-majors, earned Smart an eight-year contract extension.
This year, after going 15-3 in the regular season, VCU automatically qualified for the tournament for the second year in a row by beating Drexel University to win the Colonial Athletic Association Conference. They won their first round game in an upset, beating No. 5 Wichita State University 62-59. It seemed like Cinderella had returned to the ball for one more year. But sadly, the Rams’ run came to an end last night, when they fell to Indiana University in a 63-61 nail-biter. Though VCU held a nine-point lead with just over 12 minutes to play, Indiana took command of the game in those final minutes and the Rams made just two out of 15 shots. The Hoosiers were out for redemption, earning their first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 10 years.
Even with the Rams’ second-round exit this year, their performances these past two years have shown the basketball world just how truly mad March can get. Cinderella stories and underdogs with heart are some of the reasons why we watch sports. Shaka Smart and VCU prove that true.