The Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. —
Shaka Smart flashes a wide grin when he's compared to Butler coach Brad Stevens.
"It's flattering," the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth said. "I have a lot of respect for Brad."
Stevens has rewritten the NCAA records for success by a first-time head coach, setting the mark for most wins in three years (89) and in four years (117). Smart isn't far behind — he had 84 victories in his first three seasons and is third all-time with 106 wins in four seasons with several games still to play.
Still, Smart said there's a big difference between the schools.
"I think it's a sign of respect for our program to be compared to Butler," Smart said. "I think Butler has done such a great deal over the past 10, 15 years and they've been so successful. They've played in two national championship games, so if anybody is gaining from that comparison, it's us."
The 20th-ranked Bulldogs' success shouldn't come as a surprise any more, Smart said.
"Brad's done a terrific job elevating the level of his program," he said. "Anyone that over the past couple of years has called them mid-major has been out of their mind. He's turned that program into a high-major program. They're definitely one of the top 15 programs in America."
On Saturday, the programs that have been linked since their most unlikely of Final Four pairings in 2011 will meet again, this time with Atlantic 10 Conference title implications on the line.
VCU (22-6, 10-3) is second in the A-10 standings, and game behind Saint Louis and a game ahead of Butler (22-6, 9-4), which is tied with La Salle. Each has three regular season games remaining.
This game is one VCU can't wait to play.
"There's going to be a lot of motivation coming into Saturday," shooting guard Rob Brandenburg, a freshman two years ago, said. "Losing to Butler, and getting another chance to play them, I know everybody's going to be ready to play. ... This game is probably the biggest game of the season. The fans are hyped, people around campus, ... all the students. The electricity's going to be here on Saturday."
In an effort to manage the madness for a noon start, VCU distributed its student tickets earlier in the week instead of on game day, but the atmosphere on the downtown campus still has the feel of a major college rivalry. Some students have slept in tents outside the arena to get their pick of seats.
Both teams have also had the week off to prepare, and for the Rams, that was almost excruciating.
In its last two games, VCU got manhandled from start to finish in a 76-62 loss at No. 19 Saint Louis, then was getting drummed again at halftime of its game at Xavier a week ago. However, in a game it once trailed by 17, Smart's team rallied in the second half to win 75-71, making the week off bearable.
"It looked like we were falling apart, and guys responded the right way," said sharpshooter Troy Daniels, who went around the locker room at halftime at Xavier and called out each player to step it up.
Both teams also seem well prepared for the intensity of a nationally televised game.
After beating five teams to go from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, VCU beat Wichita State in the second round of last year's tournament, then came with a missed jumper at the buzzer by Brandenburg of ousting Indiana — this year's overwhelming top-ranked team in the preseason — in the next round.
The stage and stakes for Saturday won't be imposing, Brandenburg said.
"The past three years, we've been on stages like this," he said.
Smart, quick to credit predecessors Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant for starting VCU's expectation of winning, said the difficulty of continuing that success like Butler and Gonzaga have can't be ignored.
"If I had a nickel for every time I heard a coach or administrator or school say, 'We're going to be the next Gonzaga,' I'd have a lot of money," he said. "It's one thing to say, 'We're going to do X, Y and Z,' but it's another thing to go out there on the court and do it, and do it consistently. I think what Butler has done is really mind-boggling in a similar way that what Gonzaga has done is mind-boggling."
On Saturday, Smart and the Rams can take another big step toward joining those ranks, too.