At times this season, Virginia Commonwealth University's mens basketball team looked horrid. In a blowout loss to the University of Richmond in December, the Rams couldn't buy a bucket, their defense was spotty and I remembered wondering if there was a serious recruiting problem.Jeff Capel, who left VCU for Oklahoma, was the golden boy who recruited Eric Maynor (and later Blake Griffin). Capel's successor, Anthony Grant, guided the team to an epic win over Duke University in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2007. (Grant brought Larry Sanders, now a Milwaukee Buck, to VCU.)
This tournament run, however, is taking place with blue-collar players who play incredible defense with a coach who is outsmarting higher paid coaches with the ability to lure the best talent in the country. This team looks nothing like the team that lost to UR and other low-rung competition during the regular season: The Rams are outright dominating very good basketball teams. Georgetown was going to lose to somebody — they hadn't won a game since mid-February — but VCU, at one point, was beating the Hoyas by 25. Purdue, a No. 3 seed and very good defensive team, looked simply overwhelmed by the Rams, losing by 18. UR may have been a better team coming into the season (they play Kansas on Friday, which should end any talk of VCU-UR in the Elite 8) but VCU, right now, is playing out of its mind. They beat Georgetown with perimeter shooting and kill Purdue in the paint. What gives?
Shaka Smart, who may soon be the most sought-after coach in college basketball, just might be better than both Capel and Grant. (Capel was fired by Oklahoma University last week, mind you.) He's beating the tar out of upper-echelon programs without an Eric Maynor or a Larry Sanders. This team is winning because of the coaching adjustments Smart is making from one game to the next. They beat Purdue on the inside — with Jamie Skeen and D.J. Haley dominating the low post — and smother the Hoyas talented point guard, Chris Wright. They switch from man-to-man to zone defense at critical junctures, confounding opponents. They don't turn the ball over. And their ability to beat Purdue's press with such speed and ease was a thing of beauty.
I've watched a lot of VCU basketball games over the years. I remember Danny Kottak draining baseline jumpers at the Richmond Coliseum and Edmund Sherod running the point under J.D. Barnett in the 1980s. Those teams were good, and some prior VCU teams have had far more talent than this one. But right now, Shaka's Rams are better. This run's going to end soon — they might have one more win in them — but enjoy this while it lasts. It may never happen again.