Shaka Smart figures about half the questions asked of this year’s Virginia Commonwealth team all relate back to last year’s team and its surreal Final Four run. Indeed, part of being the coach of VCU is that people outside the program still want you to be VC-Who?
Creating a separate, non-Cinderella identity in college basketball “can be challenging,” Smart said Sunday at the 17th annual BB&T Classic at Verizon Center.
He looked at his two best players sitting beside him and added: “At the same time, I don’t know about you guys, but when we walked into the building today it felt a lot like when we walked into the United Center last year [during the NCAA tournament]. There was almost a comfort level, like we’ve played in a big place like this before. So you take things like that, too.”
It was late afternoon, after the Rams staved off George Washington’s second-half rally to move to 5-3, minutes before a middling Maryland team rode pop-a-shot Terrell Stoglin and senior Sean Mosley past Mike Brey’s depleted Notre Dame squad in the late game.
And it was impossible not to see the symmetry unfolding, the idea that Smart was not the only coach in search of a new niche. Look at greater Washington, clearly not your father’s college hoops landscape anymore.
George Mason got its first new coach in 14 years, hiring Paul Hewitt after Jim Larranaga left for Miami. GW hired a men’s basketball coach for the first time in 10 years, plucking Mike Lonergan out of Vermont after it fired Karl Hobbs. The biggest change of all, of course, is after 22 years, not seeing Gary Williams gritting his teeth and turning violently toward the Terrapins bench after a turnover or bad call.
Mark Turgeon on one knee, surveying his best victory yet as the Terps’ new coach, put it all in perspective.
It’s wild to think of John Thompson III, less than eight years after he took his old man’s former job at Georgetown, is the second-longest-tenured coach among major local college men’s teams.
Unless Jeff Jones — now the dean of D.C. area Division I men’s coaches in his 11th season at American — or Hewitt at Mason can win their respective conference tournaments, the Hoyas might also be the only area hope for an NCAA tournament berth. If Hollis Thompson and Jason Clark and their young teammates can play with the kind of confidence they’ve already shown during a 7-1 start, the people who picked Georgetown to finish 10th in the Big East will be rightly silenced.
The Terps, meanwhile, are at least a year away from any serious contention in the ACC — and that might be generous.
Three walk-ons played for Maryland on Sunday, and until an injured Pe’Shon Howard returns the Terps have no bona-fide point guard and, thus, no semblance of cohesion offensively. If Stoglin isn’t hitting some shot out of his ear — he dropped in a clutch three-pointer from the right wing to give him 31 points and seal the victory against Notre Dame — or someone isn’t putting back a miss underneath, it’s a crap shoot to score.
The Colonials have some nice pieces, but Lonergan is probably two recruiting classes away from turning Smith Center into a loud bandbox — and GW into a genuine tournament team — again.
If area teams are in flux, so too is this tournament, which began in 1995 with U-Mass.’s Marcus Camby as the MVP.
Credit goes to Maryland and GW, who have participated in every BB&T Classic, which benefits the Children’s Charities Foundation and finds it harder to lasso teams because of exempt events on the NCAA calendar.
There’s still something wrong with Georgetown not being here, given Verizon is the Hoyas’ home court. Whosever bruised ego prevents that is immaterial by now. What is important is local college basketball — and the designated charities — will continue to be held hostage by individual interests. As a Jesuit institution, how do you not play in an event has raised $9 million for at-risk kids?
After all the homegrown talent, it’s more than embarrassing that Philadelphia has full participation among the Big Five – La Salle, Villanova, Temple, Penn and Saint Joseph’s — and Washington annually usually musters just the Lone Two. (Though American, George Mason, Howard, Navy and Virginia Tech have all participated in different years.)
Forget Georgetown, Maryland — the BB&T’s main draw most years — may not be an automatic entry down the road. With funds unbelievably scarce in College Park, the concern financially is a real one. Who knows if Maryland wants another home game fill the coffers?
Heck, if Georgetown never wants to be involved, I would just move the tournament to Comcast Center. Or, if Maryland has to renege, then Smith Center — and make it a mid-major smorgasbord.
Let’s be honest: When many juniors and seniors stick around a program, it really doesn’t matter where they’re playing if they have Final Four aspirations.
In that way, Smart and VCU are almost a window into what’s happened locally. Even he acknowledges Larranaga leaving for Miami might have something to do with VCU being able to come up with $1.2 million per year to keep its coach — while Mason and most other mid-majors can’t come up with that kind of loot.
And when more and more Butler and VCU-type tales emerge annually, more and more scrutiny is heaped upon their peers — especially the better-funded programs.
One of the reasons Williams had trouble getting into the tournament several times in the past decade is partly because mid-major schools were selected ahead of Maryland, a fact that might push anyone’s retirement buttons. One of the reasons Hobbs is now an assistant again for Jim Calhoun at Connecticut is because he couldn’t duplicate his early mid-major success at GW, while other programs the same size and with the same budget leapfrogged the Colonials.
It’s impossible to take away any certainties from college basketball in December, except these two: Patience is needed, including at Georgetown. And, yes, no Gary takes a while to get used to.
What’s that saying — “Change is inevitable, but growth is optional?” We’ll see.