Well, I’ve had some time to process—it just takes me a little while to get over the mourning stage. I don’t mean to say that I was necessarily sad because we lost or how we played, I was just bummed it was over.
I actually thought we played pretty valiantly against the Oklahoma “Buddy Hields”. Even with the loss I think I could point to that game and use it as an example of why I love this program and will forever be a VCU Ram. I held my head up high after the game, because I knew we never gave up. It was a very good effort, during a great weekend, but I was curious how it held up against some of our other opening-weekend NCAA Tournament appearances.
So, on the way to the A10 Tournament in Brooklyn this year, VRN played a game of “Best/Favorite/Most Important” with Ross and Susan of RVANews while discussing pizza options in Richmond. The game is exactly what it sounds like—the best slice of pizza, your favorite slice (a small but distinct difference), and then the most important slice of pizza.*
I will now translate this game to VCU Basketball, because that is what I do with most things. For the purpose of this article I’m gonna speak specifically to NCAA Tournaments in which we’ve won our first game and lost our second. This will help me elaborate what I think this years team accomplished compared to some VCU teams who made it equally as far. I know this will leave out a handful of Tournament appearances (I’m leaving out the 2011 Final Four team intentionally), but I think it’s best to compare teams with similar postseason results.
Best: 2006-2007 Duke/Pitt
There’s gonna be some people here that are already mad at me. How could I not pick this VCU team as my Most Important some of you will say. I get it. I would 100% understand if you did. It was the David vs. Goliath storyline, Anthony Grants inaugural season, it was “The Dagger”, and it was the explosion of modern-era VCU onto the national scene. This team was full of characters you knew and loved: Jesse Pellot-Rosa, B.A. Walker, Eric Maynor, Calvin Roland, Will Fameni, Jamal Shuler, and Michael Anderson.
VRN gathered with a small group of friends and watched this together. I remember the cable cut out right before Eric Maynor catapulted VCU into headlines everywhere. Then I remember screaming coming from the other room where a couple people had gone to listen on the radio in the absence of the TV. Then the cable came back. We lost our minds. It was the best feeling I had ever experienced in my time with VCU.
Then there was Pittsburgh. It was uncharted territory for me. I felt like we were playing with house money. I wasn’t sure how to evaluate them or us. I thought “I’m just happy to be here.” But then we started cutting into their lead. Maybe we’ve got a chance? It was a tough loss, but taking that 3-seeded Pittsburgh team to overtime was a hell of a statement.
So, why is this only my “Best” and not my “Most Important”? Frankly, there was no where for us to fall if we lost. We were supposed to lose that game. A loss wouldn’t have devastated the program. We would have just come home and gotten back to working on next year. It was certainly an important weekend, and one that greatly benefited us, but the forward momentum of the program wasn’t reliant on these games at the time.
Favorite: 2011-2012 WSU/IU
I thought about putting the 2012-2013 team here—that Akron game was fun! We ran them out of the arena; it was a perfect exclamation point for HAVOC! We even set an NCAA Tournament record for largest margin of victory (81-42) by a team not seeded 1 or 2. But, the subsequent game against Michigan reeled me back in to reality. I think most of us had that gut-check moment that went something like, “so this is whatitfeels like.” So, I’m omitting this one.
Instead I’m going with the 2011-2012 weekend in Portland, Oregon.
Wichita State and VCU fans were very familiar with each other by this point. Bracket-buster games had put our teams on a similar path, but this is the year where the lines crossed. It was a tough back-and-forth and it came down to a heroic three-pointer from Senior Bradford Burgess. I spent both games that weekend sitting next to Maya Smart and her family. I remember hearing for the first time her positivity beaming through while she called out “Win Anways!” that weekend. Before we left I told her how much it had kept me sane. I still try say it to myself during games.
Next was Indiana. It took every positive cheer Maya had to keep my nerves in check. VCU played tough and fought with all they had. It took a late game miracle for IU to get out alive. If that ball wouldn’t have been blocked right into his hands on the baseline.. Ugh.
Don’t get me wrong though, making it back to the NCAA Tournament the year after we went to the Final Four and graduated Seniors Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell was important. That’s a lot of pieces to replace. It was also the first consecutive Tournament appearances by the Rams since the 1983/84/85 seasons.
Most Important: 2015-2016 OSU/OU
Look, I get why someone would place the 06-07 team here. You wouldn’t have to sell that to me. You wouldn’t even need much to argue the 1985 team that touted a #2 Seed in the NCAA Tournament (VCU beat Marshall in the opening round before losing to 7 Seed Alabama in the Round of 32). But at the end of the day, I think this 2015-2016 VCU Rams team may have been the Most Important yet.
VCU barely got into the tournament with the last at-large bid. There were plenty of bracket experts saying both Oregon State (7) and VCU (10) were seeding incorrectly. VCU hadn’t been able to defeat a Power 5 school all season. Not to mention everyone just knew Gary Payton II was going to go off. All year pundits had questioned whether VCU could survive the combo punch that was Shaka Smarts departure, the transfer of three incoming freshman and sophomore Terry Larrier, and the graduation of two Ram Legends in Briante Weber and Trevor Graham. Factor in that head coach Will Wade was in his first year with the Rams and up until the weekend prior, had never even won a postseason game of any kind, including conference tournaments. The Rams were all but counted out, this would be a rebuilding year at best.
But then VCU did what VCU is so good at doing—we played the underdog. Transfer Korey Billbury came in and made and immediate impact. Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed gave Mo Alie-Cox a chance to breath. Melvin Johnson made a senior year leap—both mentally and physically—that I’m not sure I’ll ever witness again. VCU marched through conference play and earned a share of first place in A10 regular season play. We went to the fourth straight Conference Tournament Finals. The Rams, an at-large pick, made a Virginia record by making the NCAA Tournament for a sixth consecutive year. And as an underdog, VCU upset Oregon State.
VCU has made amazing strides in the last 10 years in becoming the program it is today. Every single NCAA Tournament game is a privilege. Don’t think so? Just ask Tom Izzo and Michigan State this year. No team is guaranteed a spot at the beginning of the season, let alone a win.
For the first time in three years, VCU head coach Will Wade and Seniors Korey Billbury and Melvin Johnson won a game in the NCAA Tournament and made a defining statement—VCU is still here and is going to be just fine.
*I chose Mary Angelo’s (Best), Da Vinci’s(Favorite), and Piccola’s (Most Important) for anyone keeping score.