Opinion: National ranking places target on VCU

Jim Swing
Sports Editor

People like to see that number. Boy, do they. Capturing a spot as one of college basketball’s top 25 schools seems to earn teams a certain amount of respect and admiration. And for fan bases, it serves as a sense of pride.

Monday, VCU got the honor of entering the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since the 1984-85 season. Back when Duran Duran was popular, gas was $1 a gallon and current VCU head coach Shaka Smart was just seven years old. It’s been that long.

On Monday, VCU men’s basketball cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time in 28 years. Photo by Chris Conway.

But showing up in the top 25 can cut both ways.

Sure, it can come in handy when it comes to recruiting. Who wouldn’t want to play for a school that’s considered to be one of the 25 best out of 347 Division I college basketball schools?

“I think it gets people’s attention when you’re ranked,” Smart said Tuesday. “Recruiting is exposure, you need people’s attention.”

It’s been nearly two years since VCU turned the country upside down with its astounding run to the Final Four. A slew of nationally televised games have since followed, and it seems as if a spot in the top 25 is just icing on the cake.

With ranking comes the responsibility to fend off unranked teams looking to pull off an upset. VCU knows that story; VCU’s written that script the past few years. The Rams have knocked off six teams with a higher seeding than them over the past two NCAA Tournaments.

“We were excited,” VCU senior guard Troy Daniels said. “But at the same time we saw it as a trap.”

Keeping hold of a top 25 spot throughout the course of a season has been a challenge for many teams in the conversation.

The spots are so fragile that nine teams originally placed in the preseason top 25 no longer exist in the rankings.

One simple loss to even a respectable opponent can cost a team its spot and Smart reminded his team of that after the rankings were released.

“You can feel good all you want about getting ranked,” he told them. “But if you don’t win this week then you won’t be ranked anymore.”

Ask a solid UNLV team that found that out this past week when it lost its spot at No. 24 in the rankings after a loss to now No. 19 New Mexico. Ask Cincinnati, which lost to a middling St. John’s team and then a ranked Notre Dame team before falling from its No. 21 perch. Ask Georgetown, which fell to two straight sturdy teams in Marquette and Pittsburgh before it was stripped of its rankings.

It’s that simple.

Still, it feels so un-VCU-like. We’re talking about the program that’s made its living as the underdog, taking down major conference opponents year after year. Now just about anyone that goes up against the Rams are the underdogs.

“We still find a way to be the underdog,” Smart said. “That’s when we’re at our best.”

It’ll be difficult for VCU to play that card from here on out. C

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