RICHMOND — Spike Lee strolled into a VCU basketball practice last week. The renowned filmmaker, hoops maven and Reggie Miller foil was speaking on campus and wanted to check out coach Shaka Smart's Rams.
"All of a sudden it went from a good practice to a through-the-roof practice," Smart said Wednesday of Lee's arrival. "I probably would have been the same way when I was 18, 19 years old. The guys were just hootin' and hollerin'. I've never heard our team talk so much. I wish we could take him on the road with us."
No doubt prompting Lee's intrigue: VCU's 12 consecutive winning seasons, highlighted by five NCAA tournament appearances and the 2011 Final Four.
Saturday at the Siegel Center, the Rams host a new Atlantic 10 rival that's been even better, one that will join them in this year's NCAA field.
Butler has reached the tournament 10 of the last 16 seasons, and under sixth-year coach Brad Stevens, the Bulldogs advanced to the 2010 and '11 national championship games. VCU and Butler clashed at the 2011 Final Four, the Bulldogs prevailing 70-62, and Saturday is their first meeting since.
"The loss was just devastating," said Rams guard Rob Brandenberg, then a freshman reserve. "We were riding so high, and it felt like nothing could go wrong. And then all of a sudden the season's over just like that. … At the same time, I realized we still made history, and that's what helped me get over it."
Smart long resisted watching tape of that night. But after a recruiting trip Monday, he stayed up until the wee hours reviewing the game.
"I told myself before I watched the game I wasn't going to get upset," Smart said.
The exercise reminded him how drastically the programs have changed in the ensuing two years. Six players combined from the current rosters scored in that Final Four contest, none more than six points.
This much has not changed: Both teams are really good.
The Bulldogs are ranked 20th and 21st, respectively, in this week's media and coaches' polls. The Rams are No. 25 in the latter.
Guided by Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke at the point, Butler plays at a deliberate pace that took down No. 1 Indiana in December. Conversely, the faster the better for VCU, which contests full-court and boasts four double-figure scorers led by Treveon Graham.
"The past two years we've been on stages like this," Brandenberg said, "so I don't think there will be an, 'Oh my goodness, it's too big.'"
Indeed, VCU built upon its Final Four with a 2012 Colonial Athletic Association championship and NCAA tournament win over Wichita State. The Rams then left the CAA for the Newport News-based A-10, joining Butler, which exited the Horizon League.
VCU (22-6, 10-3 A-10) and Butler (22-6, 9-4) are among the teams jockeying with 18th-ranked Saint Louis (21-5, 10-2 entering Wednesday night's game against Saint Joseph's) atop the standings.
"It's a sign of respect for our program to be compared to Butler," said Smart, in his fourth year with the Rams. "They've played in two national championship games. If anybody's gaining from that comparison, it's us. … We have not put together yet the sustained success, particularly in the postseason, that Gonzaga or Butler has."
No program from outside the six major conferences can match Gonzaga's run. The Zags have made 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the last 13 under coach Mark Few, a close friend of Smart's.
Gonzaga will make it 15 this season and could ascend to No. 1 in the polls next week after top-ranked Indiana's loss at Minnesota on Tuesday.
"If I had a nickel for every time I've heard a coach or administrator or school say, 'We're going to be the next Gonzaga,' I'd have a lot of money," Smart said. "It's one thing to say, 'We're going to do X, Y and Z.' It's another thing to go out there on the court and do it, and do it consistently.
"I think what Butler's done is really mind-boggling, in a similar way to what Gonzaga's done. … The hard thing is, when you've done that, particularly over a stretch of years, there can develop a sense of entitlement among the people around your program, that it just happens and you deserve it. And that's just not the case. Every year you have to start over."
With the Atlantic 10 at 16 teams, Saturday is the only game this regular season between the Bulldogs and Rams, though they could meet again in the conference tournament, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
That's Spike Lee's turf, and here's guessing he'd want to be courtside for the rematch.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun