The second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament was defined by a series of riveting upsets. There was a pig-farming big man helping North Dakota State upend Oklahoma; a game Dayton team outdueling Ohio State; and a seldom-used guard busting out the NaeNae to celebrate Mercer’s ousting of Duke.
None of those games, though, measured up to the sheer improbability of what happened inside Viejas Arena late on March 21, 2014. With No. 5 seed Virginia Commonwealth leading by four and less than 10 seconds remaining, No. 12 Stephen F. Austin guard Desmond Haymon completed a four-point play to send the game into overtime. JeQuan Lewis, the player who was whistled for a questionable foul on Haymon, also missed a potential game winner in the waning seconds of overtime, and the Lumberjacks held on for a two-point win. For Stephen F. Austin, it will go down as one of the most thrilling games in program history. The VCU players, Lewis in particular, would probably rather not speak of it again.
Asked at a post-game news conference whether the loss stung more than others, coach Shaka Smart said: "I mean, it feels the same as any loss right now, 30 minutes after the game, but they all sting. You know, but we watch the tape and reflect back on the game, you know, the ones that you feel like you had an unbelievable opportunity to win, those ones do tend to stick with you longer and this is certainly one of those games."
Some of the devastation must have worn off at this point. With a couple months’ distance, it should be easier for VCU fans to look past that disastrous finish. Nothing that ridiculous could happen again this year, right? Besides, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Construction for a new 60,000-square foot practice facility – complete with players lounges and dining rooms, video viewing rooms, an academic center and a Hall of Fame exhibit in the main lobby – is scheduled to begin on June 2. VCU will reportedly increase its basketball budget, already larger than multiple traditional high-majors, by $200,000 this year and $100,000 next year. And after years of rampant rumors linking Shaka Smart to job openings at bigger programs, the VCU coach reportedly turned down another coaching opportunity this offseason.
Smart reportedly met with director of athletics Ed McLaughlin and did not request any changes to his contract. At this point, after rebuffing numerous overtures since becoming a hot candidate after the Rams' 2011 Final Four run, it seems clear Smart is happy with what he’s built at VCU and isn’t inclined to leave for just any high major job.
Barring something unforeseen, Smart will be back to coach what could he his best team yet. The Rams return the core of a group that went 26-9 amd forged a second-place finish in the A-10. They should be considered the early favorite to win the league. Seniors Briante Weber and Treveon Graham are two of the more notable returnees. Weber posted the highest steal rate in the country last season, according to Kenpom.com, while Graham, the lone returning member of the A-10 first team, was the Rams’ leading scorer (15.8) and second-leading rebounder (7.0).
Along with Weber and Graham, junior Melvin Johnson and sophomores Mo Alie-Cox, Jordan Burgess and Lewis should help compensate for the losses of seniors JuVonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg. VCU should also get a boost from a heralded recruiting class featuring top-100 recruits Terry Larrier, Michael Gilmore and Justin Tillman. Larrier, ranked No. 43 in the class of 2014 by ESPN, is the highest rated player Smart has landed at VCU, and drew offers from Arizona, Connecticut and Florida, among other schools. With ample returning talent and a promising group of freshmen, the Rams should open the season in the top 25 of the polls. Three years ago, VCU came out of nowhere to take out USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas en route to an appearance in the National Semifinals. Last season, after not making it past the round of 32 in 2012 or 2013, the Rams were on the other end of an upset. If the Rams play to their potential this season, making the tournament won't be an issue. Their task from there? Avoiding another early exit.