This year’s men’s basketball schedule tops all others

Jim Swing
Sports Editor

At first glance, the newly released VCU men’s basketball schedule has a different shine from slates in recent past. This thing is riddled with names, some big, some small, and almost all perfectly recognizable.

The long-awaited schedule release makes like Christmas in early September for Black and Gold die-hards. Many a time, other than the conference slate, it’s a complete mystery who will show up on the Rams’ agenda. Every now and again there’s those teams that you glance at and go, “Why?”

But this year’s schedule is gift-wrapped with a ruby red ribbon on top. It only gets better and better. And in the world of mid-major college basketball scheduling, ‘better and better’ means tougher and tougher.

What head coach Shaka Smart has done for the VCU program over four years is neither here nor there, but this year, he and his staff were at the top of their game. Smart, one of the young go-hards of college basketball, has created the toughest and most prudent schedule VCU basketball has seen up to this point.

This one welcomes nine teams that made last year’s NCAA Tournament including a much-talked-about Atlantic 10 slate.

Junior Rob Brandenberg is one of 12 returning players for VCU. Photo by Chris Conway.

Now before you drive a thumbtack through the schedule and make another hole in the wall of your office, take a look at some of the highlights:

Wichita State, which VCU bounced from the Big Dance six months ago, visits the Siegel Center Nov. 13 looking for some payback. This is the return game from the 2011 ESPN BracketBusters event, which the Rams also won. The Shockers graduated a good portion of its scoring from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, but should present a good early-season matchup for VCU.

VCU was invited to arguably the best preseason tournament in Battle 4 Atlantis where the Rams will face Memphis in a first round matchup. Other possible opponents include the likes of Duke, Louisville, Minnesota, Northern Iowa and Stanford. The Rams are guaranteed three games in the tournament, which will present a couple opportunities against quality opponents.

At Old Dominion on Dec. 7. This one just about speaks for itself. One of the most underrated rivalries in college basketball survived both teams’ departure from the Colonial Athletic Association and the tension resumes at the Ted this winter. However, the Monarchs are heavily depleted after losing leaders Kent Bazemore and Chris Cooper to graduation.

Former VCU head coach Anthony Grant will be dragged out of Tuscaloosa kicking and screaming when his Alabama side visits the Siegel Center Dec. 15 as a part of a clause in his old contract. OK, maybe not kicking and screaming, but this certainly isn’t a matchup high-major coaches wish for. Bringing your team to Richmond, throwing it out in front of a raucous crowd and feeding it to a dangerous mid-major team isn’t necessarily the ideal situation for a SEC coach.

The only two teams to knock off Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament meet Jan. 5 when Lehigh visits VCU. The Mountain Hawks were Patriot League champions last season behind C.J. McCollum, who ranked top seven in the nation in points and steals per game. McCollum, a projected NBA first round draft pick, returns for his senior season.

Then there’s the conference schedule. There’s something exhilarating about that bright red A-10 logo, isn’t there? It goes further than that though, a whole lot further. When Smart and the higher-ups at 1200 W. Broad St. decided to take the risky leap to the A-10, it wasn’t about landing in a conference with a little more shine to it.

It was about taking the next step and doing what’s best for the program as a whole. And for men’s basketball, paving another path back to – I said it – the Final Four. Guaranteed conference games against high-level teams every year does nothing but increase the chances of returning to the NCAA Tournament every year.

Over the past three seasons the CAA has sent five teams to the Big Dance. The A-10 has had 10 teams over that span, four in last year’s tournament alone.

And the move couldn’t have come at a better time. VCU returns six upperclassmen, a strong core of sophomores and welcomes arguably the best freshman class the school has seen that includes a pair of top 100 recruits. The Rams, who are likely to be named in multiple preseason top 25 polls, became the cream of the crop in the A-10 the second they were inaugurated.

A sturdy non-conference schedule will compliment an already-strong conference slate. But it won’t be a walk in the park. Trips to St. Louis, Xavier and Temple in the final 19 days of the regular season will test VCU’s mettle. Chances to build a strong resume and make a third-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament are aplenty.

The opportunities are knocking, VCU just needs to answer.

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