By Tim Casey
NEW YORK - - Around 3:20 p.m. on Sunday, the Barclays Center public address announcer introduced each member of the Saint Joseph's basketball team after the Hawks defeated VCU to win the Atlantic 10 championship.
Outside the VCU locker room, as the names were called and the fans cheered, Rams athletic director Ed McLaughlin waited in deep thought, his arms folded and head bowed. The typically gregarious McLaughlin didn't say a word until guard Briante Weber walked past him. McLaughlin tapped Weber's shoulder, offered condolences and then entered the locker room to talk with players and coaches.
The Rams were dejected following their 65-61 loss in which they scored their second fewest points of the season and had their six-game win streak snapped. Still, under the leadership of 40-year-old McLaughlin and 36-year-old coach Shaka Smart, VCU has emerged as one of the nation's top college basketball programs. The Rams win, they have passionate fan support and they raise and spend money to compete on the highest level. They're not going away.
On Friday, VCU (26-8) opens its fourth straight NCAA tournament in San Diego as the No. 5 seed in the South against No. 12 Stephen F. Austin -- who owns a 29-game winning streak -- with the winner playing UCLA or Tulsa on Sunday. Since Smart was hired in April 2009, the Rams have won at least 26 games in each of his five seasons. In 2011, they became the third No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four, defeating USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before losing to Butler in a national semifinal.
That unlikely run brought unlikely attention to the Richmond, Va. school and plenty of opportunities for Smart, who has so far rejected overtures from high-major programs. After turning down the UCLA job in March 2013, Smart agreed to an extension at VCU until 2023, and seven months later, he signed a deal that keeps him with the Rams until 2028. But the rumors of him leaving likely won't cease.
Smart has numerous reasons to stay, though, as he's making $1.5 million per year, working for a top-rate administration and overseeing a program that's no longer overlooked. In January 2013, VCU was ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since the 1984-85 season. The Rams also were ranked this preseason (at No. 14 in the AP and 15 in the USA TODAY Sports coaches poll) for the first time in their history.
The success has coincided with upgrades to make VCU more attractive to recruits and relevant among teams that measure themselves by their facilities. Early last week, the school announced that the construction of a 60,000 square-foot complex for the men's and women's basketball programs will begin this spring, costing $25 million, with new practice courts, locker rooms, coaches offices and other amenities.
When the project is completed, it will add to VCU's advantages, which include a fan base that sold out each game this season at the on-campus 7,741-seat Verizon Wireless Arena. The Rams went 15-0 at home and won all but one game by double figures.
"Every game, no matter rain, sleet, snow, they're in there," said VCU junior guard Treveon Graham, the team's leading scorer at 15.7 points per game and a first-team All-Atlantic 10 selection. "It's a great atmosphere. I love the fans for the contributions they've put in over the years."
Last weekend in Brooklyn, they continued showing their support and created a home-court atmosphere for VCU. In the school's second season in the Atlantic 10, a large contingent of fans wearing the school's black and yellow colors attended the three games. The Rams cruised to victories over Richmond (71-53) and George Washington (74-55) before struggling against the Hawks.
Know for implementing a full-court aggressive defense known as "Havoc" after making shots, VCU didn't shoot well enough (36.9 percent from the floor, 26.3 percent on three-pointers and 53.3 percent on free throws) and couldn't put enough pressure on Saint Joseph's on Sunday. The Rams entered the game leading the nation in turnovers forced (18.7) and steals (11.5) per game, but they managed only 12 and 6, respectively. Despite all five Saint Joseph's starters playing the entire second half, the Hawks never seemed fatigued, although the outcome wasn't decided until late.
"We take any loss hard," Smart said. "We felt like we had a great opportunity today. Anytime that happens and you don't get it done and you don't get what you want then there's going to be a level of disappointment because our guys, to their credit, want to win really, really bad. You'd rather have guys like that than guys who are just going to blow it off and turn the page and say, 'Oh, no big deal.'"
They couldn't spend too long lamenting their defeat, though. The Rams planned on watching Selection Sunday at the Brooklyn hotel before heading home to prepare for their NCAA tournament opponent in five days. Before the brackets were announced, Smart was asked if he preferred any seed.
"Obviously you want to be in the best position you can be in," Smart said. "But to be honest with you, it's a lot more about matchups than it is about seeding."
After getting seeded 11th and 12th in 2011 and 2012, this is the second consecutive season VCU will enter as a No. 5 seed, but it might be shorthanded. Sophomore guard Melvin Johnson, the team's third-leading scorer and best three-point shooter, sprained his knee on Saturday and is unlikely to play in the opener.
Last year, the Rams lost by 25 points to eventual national runner-up Michigan in the round of 32. This year, they believe they are prepared for the tournament because of their strong conference schedule. The Atlantic 10 received six bids, the same as the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 and second only to hte Big 12.
VCU hopes its signature defense can lead to a deep run like it did three years ago. No matter the results, though, VCU has proven the 2011 Final Four appearance was the start of a run never before seen in school history. It's no fluke. The Rams are here to stay.
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.