The record will show that during the 2011-2012 college basketball season, Virginia Commonwealth University played 36 games, winning 29 and losing 7. Of those seven games, four came after the turn of the new year -- three conference games and Saturday night's stomach-dropping 63-61 loss to Indiana in the NCAA Tournament. VCU lost those four games by a total of 11 points.
"We go into every single game expecting to win and expecting to advance," VCU head coach Shaka Smart said after the game. How could he not, with a team that hadn't been beaten by double digits since before Thanksgiving? How could he not, with this hellish press defense that ended the season leading the nation in steals (10.7 per game)? How could he not, when Juvonte Reddic tipped in a missed shot with 12:38 to go to give the Rams a 57-48 lead over the Hoosiers on Saturday night?
But there were signs. There had been throughout the game. In the first half, despite efforts to hurry Indiana's passers, Hoosiers forward Cody Zeller had been able to get the ball with impunity. In 16 first-half minutes, Zeller went 4-for-4 from the field, scoring 10 points while grabbing nine rebounds (more than the eight VCU had in the entire first half). The result was that despite shooting 55 percent from the field (16-for-29) in that first half, VCU never led by more than nine and walked into the locker room at intermission leading by a single point (42-41) against a team that had shot 67 percent from the field (16-for-24) despite turning the ball over 10 times.
"I think the key for [Zeller] at the end of the game was he was able to catch the ball right off the elbow," Smart said Saturday. "And that's not something we typically allow big guys to do. We've got to do a better job denying that. When he caught it, he made some great plays, he put our defense in a tough spot and got to the rim and that put us at a disadvantage."
Then came the second half, which was as different from the first half as Bach was from The Beatles. Both teams made 11 of 15 two-point shots in the first half, but VCU only made three of the 12 twos they took in the second half (for their part, Indiana made seven of 18 two-point field goals in the second half).
"You've got to sustain your half court defense, which we did not do very well in the first half," Smart said by way of explanation. "We did a better job the second half. And then you've got to put the ball in the basket. We only scored 19 points in the second half and obviously that wasn't quite enough."
In the final twelve-and-a-half minutes, as the lead dwindled into the past, VCU attempted 15 field goals: seven two-pointers and eight three-pointers, despite the fact that the Rams were tied with Samford and Central Michigan for an underwhelming 214th in the country in three-point percentage. All but two of the attempts missed, and neither of them were treys.
"I think we got some good looks," Smart said. "I know we got some good looks that I certainly would take again. There were a few possessions that we ‑‑ where we didn't execute particularly well, where I think there was one shot clock violation, there was a couple other ones where we didn't get great looks at the end of possession. Yes, a lot of that has to do with Indiana and their defense." Indiana, for the record, has the 135th-ranked defense in the country, allowing opponents to shoot 42.4 percent from the field. As of Sunday, they were tied with VCU in that category.
So it really was just one of those games that genuinely could have gone either way. Indiana's final shot went in, VCU's did not, and now the watching basketball world wonders what Smart will do next. Persistent rumors and media reports continue to link him to the vacant Illinois position, though other, more concrete offers will no doubt head Smart's way if (and "if" is very much the right word) the program's current level of success can be sustained. The loss of senior Bradford Burgess, who cruelly missed two foul shots with a minute to go and VCU holding a 61-58 lead, will loom as a large hole that needs filling.
There are two examples that Smart would do well to keep before him. The first is Mark Few, who has worked at Gonzaga since 1989 as an assistant and head coach, guiding the Bulldogs to an NCAA appearance every year while never getting further than the Sweet Sixteen (that's if you don't count 1999's Elite Eight run, when Few was an assistant to Dan Monson). Few's name has been mentioned seemingly every time a big-time coaching vacancy has come up (including at his alma mater, Oregon), and every time he has passed on the chance.
The other example is that of the man who previously occupied the bench at Assembly Hall, Bruce Weber. Weber, you will recall, parlayed two straight NCAA appearances with Southern Illinois (including a Sweet Sixteen run in 2002) into the gig as Bill Self's replacement in Champaign. Using primarily Self's recruits, Weber led the Illini to the National Championship game in 2005 (losing to North Carolina) before a steady record of declining on-court returns from his own recruits led to his ouster earlier this month.
The final decision is Smart's, and it hinges on how far he thinks he can take VCU's program. If the thinks he can keep up his success by vacuuming up diamond-in-the-rough recruits from the Southeast and places further afield, then he might decide to stay and build the Gonzaga of the East. But if he feels that he's come as far as he can with, don't forget, a mid-major conference and less-than-paramount resources, then he will listen very closely to any offer from Illinois (or anybody else).
Whatever the outcome, the first part of the Shaka Smart Era at VCU ended Saturday. Will there be a second?