Column: At VCU expectations were high in the ’80s, too

Jim Swing
Sports Editor

It’s hard to believe the expectations for VCU basketball this past season may have been as high as they’ve ever been. That’s likely a testament to how high the program has climbed in the past three seasons, but it’s still something to look back on.

Shaka Smart and his Rams entered a new, tougher league — one some said would be much tougher for them to compete and find success in.

The above article was published in the Commonwealth Times in 1985 after VCU team fell to Alabama in the NCAA Tournament. Image from CT archivesNo question the Atlantic 10 is a much more deep and talented league than the Colonial Athletic Association, but VCU still won 27 games — just two short of its 2012 mark — and finished second in the conference. Smart took a team with just three seniors, only two of which received significant playing time, to the A-10 title game in Brooklyn falling just short against a destined Saint Louis team.

Each year Smart’s teams seem to be just as good if not better than the year prior, which has heightened outside expectation to an almost unrealistic level. Many writers, bloggers and analysts picked VCU to match what it did in 2011 and return to the Final Four.

There was a popular shirt that was sold in stores that year that had a crumpled up piece of paper on the front of it and read, “There goes my bracket!”

After VCU’s 78-53 disappointing loss to eventual NCAA runners-up Michigan in the Round of 32, my dad joked to me on the phone about wearing the shirt because he had them going much further in his bracket.

Wait. People’s brackets were actually ruined by the Rams because they didn’t go far enough? They’ve come a long way since 2011, no?

But then I came across something interesting. Bored in class, I dove into the VCU’s online library and began searching old basketball photographs and archived Commonwealth Times issues from long ago.

(Author’s note: If you ever get the time, do it. There’s some fascinating stuff in there including some great old-school beer ads.)

I found an issue from 1984 that was published at the end of March, early April. The sixth-seeded Rams were fresh off a loss to Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, which marked the third year in a row they’d bowed out of the Big Dance after winning one game.

The quote that grabbed my attention came from then-head coach J.D. Barnett, who had much bigger plans.

“I feel like (since) we didn’t make the final eight (in the NCAA), then we didn’t have a successful season,” he said.

Barnett had taken VCU to the NCAA Tournament five times over a six-year span, earning single-digit seeding four out those five times. A year later, the Rams fell in the second round for the fourth straight year, this time as a school-high 2-seed to No. 7 Alabama.

The expectations were through the roof and winning one game wasn’t cutting it.

But imagine Smart basically saying, “That’s not good enough” if VCU was knocked out any earlier than the Elite Eight. I can’t see it happening.

He understands that matchups are what determine who wins and who goes home in the NCAA Tournament and anybody can beat anybody on any given night. Smart and VCU exemplified that in 2011 by crushing USC, Georgetown and Purdue en route to the Final Four.

But it makes you wonder. At what point might Smart begin to heighten his personal expectations to perhaps as far as the Elite Eight or Final Four even?

Under Barnett, VCU lost four times in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Most recently under Smart, the Rams have failed to make it out of the first weekend after winning their first tournament game in two straight seasons.

Wonder if we’ll start to see a little Barnett in Smart?

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