RICHMOND, Va. – VCU won’t have any questions about whether or not they belong in the NCAA Tournament this season. Capturing the Colonial Athletic Association championship with a 59-56 win over Drexel leaves no doubt, and it’s also an indication of how the team has grown over the course of the season.
“We started this season 3-3, we weren’t playing terrific basketball, we weren’t considered an NCAA Tournament-caliber team in November,” reflected head coach Shaka Smart.
Since November 30, the Rams are 25-3. 16 of those wins came by double digits, and the Rams have held 21 of the opponents under 65 points (only Northeastern reached that mark this weekend, with the Huskies scoring exactly 65 points in Saturday’s quarterfinal). They forced 18 turnovers per game and gave it away 11 times per game in that stretch. They kept it up in the CAA Tournament, where they forced 60 turnovers and gave it away 28 times for a margin of 10.7 per game.
This was a team that wasn’t supposed to be here based on conventional wisdom. VCU lost four guys who played major roles on last season’s team and all signed professional contracts overseas. That left behind a team with just one senior and three juniors, with none of the juniors having played major minutes before. They returned three sophomores who showed plenty of potential in limited minutes last year playing behind the veterans, but had to grow into new roles. It was the ninth-youngest team in the country.
What happened is that the one senior, Bradford Burgess, grew into the leader Smart felt he could be. Burgess is a nice, down-to-earth young man who has always cared about the team. When he had a mid-season slump, he never stopped leading the team even though he had a hard time scoring. Smart saw his leadership potential all along, but also noticed how he was deferential to the upperclassmen in that aspect. He respected them and learned from them, and was the rock for this year’s team now that he is a senior. He’ll leave college with the NCAA’s all-time record for consecutive starts, which currently stands at 144.
“He’s just been our rock, he’s held everything together,” said Smart. “A lot of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, Brad’s been terrific about.”
What happened is one of the juniors, Darius Theus, emerged in a way pretty much nobody imagined. He’s come all the way from where another mid-major coach wanted him as a walk-on to being a third-team All-CAA selection and then the Most Outstanding Player in the conference tournament. He played the game of a lifetime on Monday night, and it made his father, who held up a sign letting everyone know who his son was, a very happy and proud man.
“He sat his first couple of years behind Joey (Rodriguez), and learned from great point guards like Joey and Eric (Maynor),” Burgess said of Theus. “He took advantage of that, and when his time came, you’ve seen what he’s done on the court. He’s paid his dues, and now it’s showing.”
What happened is the sophomores grew up, although it didn’t come easily. Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg, the latter of whom made the All-Tournament team, have come along the most, although D.J. Haley has had good moments and has been a productive part of the starting lineup. Reddic has the better numbers and shows plenty of potential after the growth this year. Brandenberg, who has a motor that’s always going, had a slump during the season, but has been very good for about a month and that included this weekend.
“One of the most brutal slumps ever in my basketball career, but it made me better as a person off the court and as a player on the court,” said the sophomore guard. “What’s life without a little adversity? I got stronger, I got into a little groove toward the end of the season.”
And what happened was that freshmen like Briante Weber and Treveon Graham fit right into how this team wants to play and were able to help early on. VCU likes to speed teams up, and Weber has already become part of that. Graham can score, and add him to emerging junior Troy Daniels, an excellent shooter who helped seal the game on Monday, and you have a team that gradually morphed into a conference champion.
The Rams also have a great chemistry that’s apparent in how they mesh on the court and how they speak of one another. The younger players were ecstatic for Burgess to win another title after he was part of a championship team as a freshman. Burgess was happy for a guy like Theus who paid his dues when many would probably have a difficult time not playing a lot of minutes. Theus talked about how all the confidence his teammates and coaches showed in him helped drive him. And the character of this team is no small factor in why they are going dancing again.
VCU wasn’t supposed to be here from a couple of angles. The Rams are a team that got better in the off-season, with the help of former Rams like Maynor, Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell who were around campus during that time and challenged the current players. They got better during the season, especially after the first few weeks were in the books. Come Monday night, they had grown into a champion and left no doubt about their fate on Selection Sunday.