As he was watching a recent screening of the “Unbelievable is Believable Here” documentary about VCU’s journey to the Final Four in 2011, Rams senior guard Rob Brandenberg was thinking “it would be great to start my career in the Final Four and finish it there.”
That would have been wishful thinking for VCU players and fans five years ago. Now it’s a sign of what’s possible and how expectations have changed.
“One thing I always think about that (2011) team is that going out there we just played because there were no expectations at all,” Brandenberg said. “It was like, ‘Let’s go out and see what we can do.’
“The past two years, people are expecting Final Fours all the time, and it’s tough.”
Making the NCAA tournament has become almost a given for VCU. The fifth-seeded Rams (26-8) will be playing in their fourth consecutive tournament and sixth in the past eight years when they take on No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin (31-2) in the South Region on Friday in San Diego.
Making a run in the tournament has become the standard.
“There was a time when if you made the tournament, that was a great season for VCU,” Brandenberg said. “Now it’s like if we go to the tournament and don’t go to the Sweet 16, don’t win a game, it was a bust season.”
The role has changed, too.
VCU used to be a popular pick to pull off upsets as a double-digit seed. The dangerous tag now belongs to Stephen F. Austin, a team with a 28-game winning streak.
“With all due respect to the media, that’s more of a media thing — underdog, favorite,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “Stephen F Austin … has won 28 consecutive games, so they’re obviously a tremendous team.
“When the ball goes up, there’s no label on your shirt that says underdog or favorite or even 5 seed or 12 seed.”
Smart has a friend who is a sports psychologist who tells him there are four motivational factors that, if they’re in your favor, will help going into a game: nothing to lose, being an underdog, no respect and playing the spoiler.
VCU’s elevation to a nationally known program means most of those factors no longer are built in.
“There is a lot more expected of us as a team,” Smart said. “You can still win. You just have to put yourself in position to win. … It’s just all this stuff in people’s minds, it is different. There’s a lot more visibility for our program.
“People talk about us more.
“For instance, this year when we have lost, it’s been like, ‘What’s wrong with those guys?’ It’s a different deal than it was before. That’s what happens when you try to take your program to the next step.”
Smart says there’s “no question” the Rams are chasing the bar set by the 2011 team, but he doesn’t believe there is pressure based on outside expectations.
The 2011 team, he said, was supremely confident. The 2012 squad, which narrowly missed advancing to the Sweet 16, was the best at locking in on the game plan.
This year’s team is “probably the most variable.”
Brandenberg and senior forward Juvonte Reddic are the only players remaining from the 2011 team.
Brandenberg said the Rams just need to be themselves and not try to live up to anybody’s expectations.
“I think the blessing and the curse of that team is how easy we made it seem to get to the Final Four, when in fact it’s tough,” he said. “There are a lot of great teams in the field. You have to be playing your best basketball at the right time and get hot.”