Sunday, April 3, 2011, 1:56 p.m.
By Ryan OHalloran
HOUSTON When it upset Pittsburgh at Verizon Center and dispatched of Wisconsin and Florida during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, Butler debunked any notion that last years Bulldogs were a once-in-a-generation story.
A season after reaching the national title game, Butler is back in the grand finale, where it will face Connecticut Monday night at Reliant Stadium.
Can VCU further blur the line between the Bowl Championship Series conferences and leagues like its CAA and Butlers Horizon?
Minutes after the Rams fell to Butler 70-62 Saturday night in the Final Four, coach Shaka Smart was emphatic: Absolutely.
Of course its not a once-in-a-lifetime run, he said. Were going to try and do this every year. Its not easy, theres no question about it.
In our program, were going to continue to build. Weve still got a lot of things we want to accomplish. Are we capable of doing it again? Sure, no question. Its certainly possible.
At the beginning of the tournament, when experts from The Worldwide Leader ripped the selection committee for VCUs inclusion, Smart told his players to do everything but ignore the negative chatter. In this case, however, maybe this was his way of telling his team one that is losing four seniors (three starters) that sustained postseason success should be the goal, not just a dream.
Never say never, said one of the future building blocks, 7-foot freshman Ed Nixon. Weve been here and we can say next year that weve been here before. I think this will help us next year. Were going to want to get back.
Butler returned to the Final Four despite losing its best player Gordon Hayward to the NBA. The Rams have many more holes to fill before next year.
Gone will be starters Jamie Skeem, Joey Rodriguez and Ed Nixon and key reserve Brandon Rozzell. They combined to average nearly 40 points per game.
Junior-to-be Darius Theus is expected to take over the point guard role and rising sophomore Juvonte Reddic (all 6-foot-10 of him) will see more minutes. Both players got invaluable experience in Saturdays game.
Becoming eligible after redshirting will be Heath Houston (an original Auburn commitment) and Reco McCarter (who reportedly visited Oklahoma and Georgia before signing with VCU).
But, first and foremost, what about Smart?
Because of his personality (have you watched him the last three weeks?), pedigree (learned under Oliver Purnell and Billy Donovan) and youth (34 this week), its natural that his name be linked to big-deal jobs.
Problem is, even Smart desired to strike with the hot iron, there isnt much left on the landscape for him to explore.
Only two major conference jobs remain open: Missouri and N.C. State and both schools remain in Big Fish Mode. Mizzou was spurned by Purdues Matt Painter and the Wolfpack cant get any veteran bench jockey to sniff the opening.
Elsewhere, most schools moved quickly, perhaps a sign that they think Smart will take the same route at least for the next few years of Butlers Brad Stevens (12-year extension last April for reportedly 1 million per season) and Richmonds Chris Mooney (10-year extension late last month).
The only mid-major coaches to make the jump have been Fairfields Ed Cooley to Providence, Missouri States Cuonzo Martin to Tennessee and Daytons Brian Gregory to Georgia Tech.
Texas Tech (former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie), Arkansas (Missouris Mike Anderson), Wyoming (former Clemson coachFlorida assistant Larry Shyatt, for a second term with the Cowboys) and Oklahoma (UNLVs Lon Kruger, who has major conference experience) chose experience over a hot commodity.
Late last week, before facing Butler, Smart said any prosperity he experiences is because of the players hes recruited and molded.
Its about whose program is able to excel at this time of year, he said. It still comes back to the players. I dont care how good you are as a coach, if your guys arent playing with a clear head, if theyre not going out there and executing the game plan, nobody is going to be talking about you.
VCUs execution during its 5-1 run to the Final Four is why everybody is talking about Smart.
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