Shaka Smart took his VCU basketball team to a recent screening of a documentary about the Rams' magical run to the 2011 Final Four. "Unbelievable Is Believable Here" is aptly titled and surely can remind Smart's players about the powers of selflessness, confidence and dreams.
But there's another lesson these Rams can learn from their revered predecessors, one that fits into this season's narrative: Losing, even in bunches, even in February, does not preclude March glory.
From Feb. 8-21, VCU lost three of four games, the program's roughest patch since, wait for it, that's right, 2011.
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Moreover, the 2011 squad stumbled more frequently, dropping five of eight to close the regular season. Three of the setbacks were at home, including a 20-pointer to George Mason, unimaginable to fans spoiled by the Rams' current 19-game winning streak at the Siegel Center.
"I don't really look at it that way," Smart told reporters Monday. "You're at where you're at. … I think everyone in the country would say they'd like to be where (undefeated) Wichita State is."
Where the Rams are is unranked by the media and coaches' polls, but No. 15 in the NCAA's Rating Percentage Index, a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament bid all but assured. Where the Rams are is fresh off Saturday's 67-56 victory over 10th-ranked Saint Louis, the program's second top-10 conquest and first since the 2011 Midwest Regional upset of No. 3 Kansas.
In short, VCU's in a pretty good place.
Sure, the February setbacks at Saint Joseph's, Massachusetts and Saint Louis were discouraging. But alarming? Hardly.
First, the games were decided by a combined 14 points. Second, each of those teams is NCAA tournament-bound — their combined record entering Tuesday was 68-17.
What apparently irritated Smart was the notion that VCU couldn't beat Saint Louis. The Billikens defeated the Rams twice last year, at home and in the A-10 tournament, and earlier this season at home.
"A lot was made in the media of 'VCU can't beat Saint Louis,'" Smart said "The reality was we had not played them at home. We lost in a close game at a neutral site. We got blown out up there last year. We lost in a one-possession game there this year.
"We knew we could beat them. We just hadn't beaten them. It's one thing to know you can do something, but it's another thing to go and do it. I think our guys did a terrific job of playing with great energy but also understanding that if … we follow the plan and hang in there through ups and downs, we're going to be fine."
As throughout Smart's five years on Broad Street, this team is defined by its pressure defense. Led by Briante Weber, the Rams force turnovers like no other and rank sixth nationally in defensive efficiency.
Offense is another story, and rudimentary as it sounds, VCU's postseason figures to hinge on how many shots it makes.
According to Ken Pomeroy, the Rams are a respectable 155th nationally in 3-point accuracy at 34.6 percent. But they are 295th in 2-point percentage at 45.4, a troubling number for any team, borderline baffling for a team that creates so many easy shots with its defense.
Indeed, in six of its seven losses, VCU shot less than 40 percent from the field. Center Juvonte Reddic and reserve Mo Alie-Cox are the only Rams shooting better than 45 percent, and even free-throw shooting — VCU is 263rd at 67.4 percent — is problematic.
As constructed and depending on matchups, the Rams are certainly capable of becoming the second state program — Virginia from 1981-84 was the first — to advance in four straight NCAA tournaments. But to make serious noise, VCU will need Treveon Graham, Melvin Johnson and Rob Brandenberg to shoot better.
A reporter asked Smart if these Rams have the qualities that served the 2011 group so well.
"It's possible," Smart said. "That team, what happened in terms of coming together and a lack of care or concern for the individual, that was special. We're not there yet."
But it's not too late to get there. As the documentary reminded Smart, the 2011 squad's confidence was "through the roof" and swelled with each victory.
"It could be," Smart said, "an unbelievable month of March."