Built Ram Tough

Sanders takes pride in VCU’s success

Larry Sanders’ star is rising on the National Basketball Association horizon.

No matter how high that star ascends, though, you can bet Sanders will always remain true to his roots.

As Sanders and his Milwaukee Bucks teammates prepared for another challenge in their drive for the NBA Playoffs, Sanders took a few moments to reflect upon his basketball past – in particular the three years he spent at Virginia Commonwealth University – and the great pride he takes in following the program’s success.

Sanders, during his sophomore season of 2008-09, was a prominent figure in helping the Rams earn their ninth NCAA tournament trip. He destroyed George Mason University with 18 points and 20 rebounds as VCU defeated the Patriots 71-50 in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship game to qualify for the NCAA field.

Sanders delivered another double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds in VCU’s opening-round NCAA game against UCLA, but the 11th-seeded Rams fell to the sixth-seeded Bruins 65-65 when a last-second shot by VCU guard Eric Maynor missed the mark.

Sanders went on to average 14.,4 points and 9.1 rebounds and shot 53.4 percent from the field in his junior season. He was named first-team all-CAA and was chosen the CAA Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive year.

In his three seasons wearing the VCU black and gold, Sanders helped the Rams go 75-27 record and capture two CAA regular-season championships and one CAA tournament title. He was selected by the Bucks with the 15th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.

Since Sanders turned pro, VCU has continued to build on the tradition he helped established. They have made the NCAA tourney field three straight times, and advanced all the way to the Final Four in 2011 under the direction of coach Shaka Smart, who played his prep basketball at Oregon (Wis.) High School.

The current VCU team improved to 27-8 with an 88-42 opening-round NCAA tournament romp over Akron on March 21.
Sanders has monitored his alma mater’s success as closely as he can.

“They switched conferences this year and had so much success in the new conference (the Atlantic 10),” Sanders said. “They had the conference defensive player of the year and a lot of great, young players. It’s been great to see the steps they’ve taken forward.”

Sanders just crossed paths with former VCU teammate Eric Maynor when his Portland Trail Blazers visited the BMO Harris Bradley Center on March 19. They have remained close during their pro careers and have maintained close ties to their collegiate program, even though their coaches have come and gone.

“Eric and I went back there over All-Star Break,” Sanders said. “That Franklin Street Gym was a sweatbox when I was there, but they’ve done it up all nice now. But it’s still fun to get in there on that old court and get that feeling again. That’s where it all began.”

Maynor carved an unforgettable niche in VCU basketball history as a sophomore during the 2006-07 season.

He scored nine of his 20 points in the last two minutes to help the Rams knock off 2006 Final Four participant George Mason in the 2007 Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship game.

Then he scored 22 points, and hit the winning shot, in VCU's victory over Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 15, 2007. The Rams, who were seeded 11th in the NCAA West Regional, achieved their first NCAA tourney win since 1985 and dealt the Blue Devils their first opening-round exit from the tourney since 1996.

Sanders entered the program the following season, and he and Maynor led the program back to the NCAA tourney one year later.

Sanders takes pride in the role he played to put VCU on the national map of college hoops.

“It was a lot of hard work, starting with great recruiting – first by (Jeff) Capel,” Sanders said. “He recruited Eric Maynor, who got the program on the national stage in his sophomore year in the win over Duke. Then Coach (Anthony) Grant recruited my group and the four guys who started when VCU went to the Final Four (in 2011). Now Shaka (Smart) has carried it on. They’re all great coaches who know what they’re doing and they’ve gone out and found guys.

“No matter who we were playing, whether it was Oklahoma or Houston or Maryland, we really took advantage of those games, prepared hard and went into those games with a fearless mentality. And the press we ran is something else, too. Practicing that every day had us in a lot better shape than other teams.”

Maynor and Sanders may be the most visible contributors in the progression of VCU basketball, but Sanders made it clear that it has been a collective effort.

“It was like a brotherhood there,” he said. “That’s what made us so successful there. It wasn’t just me and Eric; it was everyone around us, and how close we were off the court as well as on the court. That made it fun.”