Run was historic; will it cost VCU Shaka?
A captivating trip to the Final Four guaranteed this season will go down as perhaps the most memorable in the 42-year history of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The question on the minds of Rams fans in the days and maybe weeks ahead is whether it was a performance that propels coach Shaka Smart to a bigger job after just two years.
After Butler beat VCU 70-62 in a national semifinal Saturday night, the 33-year-old Smart spoke like a man making plans to prove the Rams' performance wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but rather the start of a burgeoning program.
''We're going to try to do this every year,'' he said. ''It's not easy; there's no question about it. In our program, we're going to continue to build. This is my second year. You know, we've got a lot of things that we still want to accomplish. This was a terrific run. Are we capable of doing it again? Sure. No question.''
Athletic director Norwood Teague said in a text message Sunday that neither North Carolina State nor Missouri, both looking for head coaches, have contacted him about talking to Smart.
Last week, Teague said he planned to sit down with Smart early this week and make an aggressive push to keep him on the Rams sideline.
Smart's situation is similar to the one that got him the VCU job. He replaced Anthony Grant, who had early success as a first-time head coach at VCU, got a huge raise and then an even bigger one - the top job at Alabama.
When he left VCU, Grant was making nearly $900,000, Teague said, which was about as high as the school could go at the time. Smart had a base salary of $325,000 this season and was due to make $640,000 in all, Teague said, because his contract was peppered with bonus opportunities.
The ceiling might be a tad higher now, but there are still limitations.
''There is a line we have to draw,'' Teague said, with the views of the university's board of visitors, staff and others to take into account when deciding how high an offer could go. ''But at the same time, they want to keep Shaka, too.''
He said he hopes the publicity and exposure the school gained from the Rams' run will give him room to work.
''The brand recognition is not just for VCU basketball, it's for the university,'' he said before the semifinal. ''And it couldn't happen at a better time at a school that has shot to the moon in a number of different ways in the last 15 years. I mean, it's perfect timing.''
Enrollment has increased from 21,681 students in 1996 to 32,303, according to school officials. It battles annually with George Mason to be the state's biggest school.
Next year's class won't include Jamie Skeen, who scored 27 points in the loss to Butler. Or point guard Joey Rodriguez or scoring guard Brandon Rozzell or defensive stopper Ed Nixon.
The foursome had a great deal to do with the Rams winning 27 games and the CBI championship last season, and 28 games this season, including the two in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament that erased a poor February and won them the spot in the NCAA field.
Except for rising senior Bradford Burgess, next year's team will be the first team dominated by Smart's recruits: scoring guard Rob Brandenberg, point guard Darius Theus and big men Toby Veal, a rising senior, and sophomores D.J. Haley and Juvonte Reddic and others.
Brandenberg played seven minutes Saturday night, scoring 1 point. He thinks the next time the Rams get together, they finally will be able to appreciate what they accomplished in beating five power conference schools and going from the ''First Four'' to the Final Four.
''It will sink in that we made history and did something that no VCU team has ever done,'' the 6-2 guard from Gahanna, Ohio said. ''Right now, to just think about the game really hurts.
''There will be a time when I can look back and say that my freshman year was a great one.''
Haley said the Rams will use the disappointment, just as they used the criticism about their inclusion in the tournament field, as motivation to work hard preparing for next year.
''All I know is that all of us are hungry,'' he said. ''I know that we'll all move forward.''
With or without Smart.