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VCU steadily building in an era of high expectations

With the game tied at at 66 and just 25 seconds left in last night’s second round NCAA tournament contest between the Rams and Ohio State, VCU’s Freight Train waited down the clock for one final play. We all knew what was coming, but would it connect? Would it be Maynor ’07, or Maynor ’09?

Treveon Graham drove the lane and into traffic with the clock winding down, a play Graham has completed throughout his career including twice this season with game-winners at Saint Louis and Rhode Island. Against OSU however, it was apparently not meant to be.

Graham’s regulation-ending attempt was just off with no accompanying whistle to send the VCU senior to the free throw line to win it at the stripe.

Ohio State flirted with disaster but were able to outlast VCU in an epic overtime battle behind the leadership of freshman superstar, D’Angelo Russell, who led the Buckeyes with 28 points on 50% shooting. He will get a very large check for his talents just a few months from now.

Sophomores JeQuan Lewis and Doug Brooks combined for 25 points in VCU's close loss to Ohio State. Neither were top-100 recruits out of high school.
Sophomores JeQuan Lewis and Doug Brooks combined for 25 points in VCU’s close loss to Ohio State. Neither were top-100 recruits out of high school.

After an exhausting season of ups and downs — a roller coaster season filled with high highs including VCU cracking the national top-10, and low lows, none lower than the premature end to star Briante Weber’s career — where does VCU go from here and how should fans feel?

We’ve entered a new era of VCU basketball, a new era under head coach Shaka Smart.

The Rams were the preseason A-10 favorite and ranked for the vast majority of the season as they have been since entering the Atlantic 10 conference.

VCU has been to five consecutive NCAA tournaments under Smart since 2011, one of just 11 teams nationally to accomplish such a feat (note: that list does not include Kentucky). But the past two tournaments have brought a swift end to VCU’s seasons, and the season before those the black and gold saw a 25-point exit at the hands of eventual national runner-up, Michigan.

“What was first applauded soon becomes expected” – Andy Stanley

Rams fans are confused. They question how they are to feel at this point in our growth as a program competing on a national level. Expectations are at an all-time high.

VCU is talked about among the top teams in the country but haven’t reached a Sweet 16 since 2011 and have more often than not come up on the wrong side of the win column in games between the top BCS programs.

I’m here to tell you to back up off the ledge.

Consider what VCU did last night and which of those two teams did not live up to expectations.

10-seed Ohio State’s starting five consisted of five former top-100 players, all five of which were within the top-80 actually, three within the top-53 including five-star D’Angelo Russell who was the 18th ranked player in his class. The Buckeyes’ bench players who contributed double-digit minutes in last night’s game were both rated 67 or higher by Rivals.com including Keita Bates-Diop, the 26th ranked player in last year’s class. Three of those top-100 starters were seniors.

Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell scored 28 points against VCU. Russell is projected as the No.2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by NBADraft.net
Ohio State freshman D’Angelo Russell scored 28 points against VCU. Russell is projected as the No.2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by NBADraft.net

On the other hand look at 7-seed VCU’s starting group: Mo Alie-Cox (unranked sophomore), JeQuan Lewis (unranked sophomore), Doug Brooks (unranked sophomore), Treveon Graham (unranked senior) and Terry Larrier, a freshman, but VCU’s highest ranked player (Rivals No.43 for 2014) since 1990 McDonald’s All-American and VCU legend, Kendrick Warren.

The Rams got 38 minutes and 17 points from junior guard, Melvin Johnson, the No.99 player in his class according to Rivals and 26 minutes of great defense from sophomore Jordan Burgess, another fringe top-100 player in his class.

Looking at those two rosters, who would you expect to win last night’s game and who did the overachieving of the two teams?

If the shoe were on the other foot, VCU fans would have expected a double-digit win.

Sure, VCU was stunned by an underrated Stephen F Austin squad the previous season, but did so on the same day a Duke Blue Devils team was defeated by the Mercer Bears just hours prior.

The NCAA tournament is the best thing in sports, but it can also be a real son of a bitch (ask 3-seeds Iowa St. and Baylor). If you make it there enough times you will be on the wrong end of an upset. You also make it there enough times and you will get to experience the magic.

There is plenty more VCU magic on the way.

The Rams have followed up a 2014 recruiting class that consisted of three top-100 players with a class that has two more highly rated recruits including Tevin Mack, ESPN.com’s No.47 overall player in the 2015 class. Mack chose VCU over defending national champ, UConn, while fellow 2015 top-100 recruit, local product Kenny Williams (ESPN No.81), chose the Rams over some team in Carolina that calls themselves the “Tarheels”. And that’s not including Jordan Murphy, the 2015 Rivals No.113 player who would have been VCU’s top-rated recruit almost every other season.

VCU overachieved perhaps more than any other program in NCAA tournament history when going from First 4 to Final 4 in 2011 and have been slowly building a program that will one day be able to match the insane level of expectations created by such a miracle run.

The fact that the already established, teams like Ohio State and Indiana, two nationally elite programs, are struggling to get past VCU at this point in time should tell you all you need to know about what is being built on Broad St.

Losses like last night are never an easy pill to swallow, but they happen to even the best programs, and not only that, sometimes even the best aren’t given the opportunity to lose that game.

Defending national champ, UConn, exited the NIT with a home loss on Wednesday night.

The University of North Carolina has one more Sweet 16 than VCU since 2011.

Syracuse, one of the elite programs in college hoops, exited from last year’s tournament after a loss to a Dayton team VCU beat in a road game by 16 points. They didn’t even make this year’s field. Same goes for the University of Michigan, a team that dispatched VCU in 2013 en route to a national runner-up finish.

Georgetown, one of the biggest names in college hoops, suffered tournament losses to VCU, Ohio, Davidson and Florida Gulf Coast in four of their last five tourney appearances, all within the first two rounds of play including three in their opening round games.

All these programs consistently recruit the absolute best players in the country.

Expectations are great, but ground them in reality.

VCU’s reality right now is one of a successful program that is in position to compete among the nation’s best year in and year out. It’s hard to believe we are at the beginning of anything after five season’s of NCAA tournament appearances, but that’s exactly where we are.

I am one of the biggest pessimists you will ever meet. Ask anyone unfortunate enough to sit next to me while I film highlights of our games for confirmation. Ask VCU SID, Scott Day. Hell, ask my wife. But in all of my frustration, even I am beginning to understand just what’s going on here. And I’m telling you, enjoy it, because it’s a great thing that’s only getting better.

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VCU School of the Arts (BFA '07) and Center for Sport Leadership (M.Ed. '10) alumnus, Mat has followed VCU basketball since the Sunbelt days when he'd attend games with his father. Worked as a graduate assistant in the VCU Sports Information Department for the '09-'10 season, but has covered VCU basketball for VCURamNation.com since 2007.

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