When college basketball's Final Four gathered in Houston eight months ago, Virginia Commonwealth was everyone's favorite underdog -- a scrappy, hard-nosed team that was one of the last at-large selections for the NCAA tournament.
Coach Shaka Smart's Rams battled their way past Southern Cal in a play-in game, then knocked off Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and top-seeded Kansas before falling to Butler in the Final Four to finish 28-12.
When the Charleston Classic tips off today at the College of Charleston's TD Arena, VCU is no longer an underdog but one of the top dogs in a field that includes first-round opponent Seton Hall, Georgia Tech, Saint Joseph's, Northwestern, LSU, Tulsa and Western Kentucky.
Smart said it's time to put last season to rest and get on with a new year.
"It's been a challenge. Any time you're involved in such a major event, and it was a major event not just for our basketball program, but also in the history of our university, it's something people are going to want to talk about," said Smart, whose team is off to a 1-0 start this year.
"It's something they don't want to forget. We certainly don't want to forget it, either, but at the same time it's a new year, a new team. The teams we play in Charleston, just like the teams we play all year long, they really don't care about what we did last year. They're trying to beat us."
Smart, 34 and in his third season at VCU, is mentioned every time there's an opening at a major college. He was an assistant at Akron under Oliver Purnell and followed Purnell when he took the job at Clemson. After working one year as an assistant at Florida, Smart took the Virginia Commonwealth job in 2009 and led the Rams to a 27-9 record and the championship of the postseason College Basketball Invitational. Included in the CBI run was a 93-86 second-round win over College of Charleston.
"We just missed the NIT and ended up in the CBI. That ended up being good for us," Smart said. "We won five postseason games and won a championship by beating Saint Louis twice. That catapulted us, and obviously last year we got better and better."
There were opportunities to advance, including the North Carolina State job, but Smart said such a move would have been premature. He said he likes the university, his staff and his team, and feels like they are laying a solid foundation for the future.
Senior Bradford Burgess, who averaged 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds last year, is Virginia Commonwealth's top returnee.
"We're young and energetic. We like to think we play really hard," said Smart, whose team plays Seton Hall at 5:30 p.m. today. "We have two freshmen on the team and only one senior, so we have a less experienced group than we had. But we have a good group and can keep getting better and do some really good things."
WHEN: Today, Friday, Sunday
WHERE: Carolina First Arena TICKETS: charlestonclassic.com or at the gate; Tournament pass covering all six sessions (12 games) is $90; single session (two games) tickets are $20. Tri-county students can get into single sessions for $5 while faculty/staff can purchase tickets for $10. TODAY'S SCHEDULE
12:30 p.m. -- Tulsa vs. Western Kentucky (ESPN3)
3 p.m. -- LSU vs. Northwestern (ESPNU)
5:30 p.m. -- Virginia Commonwealth vs. Seton Hall (ESPNU)
8 p.m. -- Georgia Tech vs. Saint Joseph's (CSS/ESPN3)
Tournament pass covering all six sessions (12 games) is $90; single session (two games) tickets are $20. Tri-county students can get into single sessions for $5 while faculty-staff can purchase tickets for $10.