VCU makes the tournament the easy way

There will be no hand-wringing or worrying, no public outcry or gnashing of teeth.

Virginia Commonwealth is back in the NCAA tournament, and no one can argue the Rams don’t belong.

A year after its epic run to the Final Four began amid controversy surrounding its at-large bid, VCU assured itself a second date by winning the CAA tournament and ousting top-seeded Drexel 59-56 in the championship game.

It’s the Rams’ first conference tourney title since 2009 and the first of coach Shaka Smart’s career.

“Well, the next six days, we will be checking the Bracketology and predictions a lot less than we did a year ago,’’ Smart said. “It was kind of cruel and unusual punishment last year, but that’s the way it goes. Now, Selection Sunday was a blast once our name was called, and this year it will be a blast in a different way. We know we’re in. Now it’s just a matter of what seed we are and who we’re playing.’’

This should, of course, be the start of a new narrative for the Rams. VCU lost four starters from that memorable team that went from First Four to Final Four, leaving Bradford Burgess behind to shepherd a group of former role players into key spots.

And it didn’t come easily or quickly. The Rams didn’t look pretty early, losing by double-digits to Seton Hall and awful Georgia Tech in the Charleston Classic and then dropping two of their first four league games.

But Smart stayed true and patient, and his players stayed with him, steadily climbing through one 11-game win streak and then another six-game run en route to the CAA title.

“A lot of people doubted us, didn’t think we’d be a championship-caliber team,’’ Smart said. “In November, we weren’t. We weren’t good enough to do what we did tonight. But that’s why we play and coach the way we do. We emphasized improvement. I always thought we were talented enough as a group and that if we developed the confidence and swagger and toughness, we’d be a championship-caliber team. To their credit, they did that.’’

Now that they are back in, the Rams are prepared for the inevitable. Smart long ago addressed the elephant in his locker room, encouraging his players to be respectful of people who want to talk about last year but to privately put it to rest. “Own today’’ was the motto the coach came up with, making business cards his players could tuck into their wallets.

Owning today will be more difficult starting next week when VCU, the tournament darling a year ago, steps back up to an NCAA podium.

Smart, though, intends to turn the pressure on its ear.

“With all the bubble talk, there were a lot of questions even now comparing us to last year’s team,’’ he said. “Our guys all year long have known that we’re going to have a target on our backs. But we intend to use it as an advantage. Going into the NCAA tournament, we have a lot of guys with tournament experience, deep tournament experience.’’

At least this year the Rams won’t have to prove they belong.