During a week in March in 2011, Richmond, Va., was the center of the college basketball universe. During that week, Richmond and VCU, the two Division I athletic programs in Virginia’s capital city both traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to compete in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
For days leading up to the games, national media descended upon the city and the programs themselves, showcasing the Spiders and Rams and a rich history and rivalry that has flown under the radar at times.
Before leaving for San Antonio, presidents of each school participated in a joint pep rally, eventually wearing the others’ colors in a symbol of RVA solidarity against the big, bad college basketball blue bloods.
Bands and fans paraded down the river walk sporting the red and blue and black and gold.
But right beneath the surface of the smiles and diplomatic gestures of two underdog programs playing on the big stage was a feverish, bitter dislike of the other.
Rivals. Foes. Enemies. Black and Blue. Richmond-VCU. Spiders and Rams.
The teams didn’t meet on that weekend in the Sweet 16. But the exposure for the rivalry intensified all the more.
“Even though I grew up here and we talked about it a lot, it felt like the buzz has been higher ever since that year,” Spider senior and Richmond native Trey Davis says. “Not that there wasn’t a lot of energy before that, but that’s when it really caught my attention even more. Every basketball season people would be talking about who was going to win the Richmond-VCU games.”
Entering its 75th iteration on Sunday, the series between Richmond and VCU began in 1976. The Spiders won the first five games, and VCU won the next seven.
During the 1980’s and early ‘90’s, the teams played twice a year despite being in different conferences. VCU went to five NCAA Tournaments with three conference tournament championships in the Sun Belt. Richmond went to five NCAA tournaments with four conference tournament championships in the CAA.
Basketball was a big deal to both schools. For Richmond, it was a calling card as one of the original “Cinderella” stories of the NCAA after a 15-2 seed upset in 1991 over Syracuse.
They briefly became conference foes in the CAA in 1995, but Richmond would leave for the Atlantic 10 by 2001.
One of the rich truths of the rivalry is that without basketball, Richmond and VCU would otherwise operate in completely different spheres.
VCU is a 31,000-student public research university with a large, urban campus. Richmond is a 3,000-student private liberal arts school with a leafy, Ivy-league look in the suburbs.
While VCU attracts a large number of local and regional student interest, Richmond is more national and international. The competition and intensity between the bases of alumni, students and staff wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for these 40-minute contests on the hardwood.
And there has been plenty of intensity on the hardwood. In 2013, Darien Brothers hit a three-pointer with just seconds remaining to send the game into overtime where Richmond eventually won, 86-74.
Last season, the Spiders became the first A-10 team in nearly two years to win a game on VCU’s home floor when the Rams were ranked 14th in the country. Kendall Anthony went off in the second half and led UR to victory as the smallest guy on the court.
Just weeks later at the Robins Center, Treveon Graham hit a fallaway three to force overtime and give VCU hope after trailing for most of the game. The Rams had a chance to win late, but couldn’t corral a rebound off a free throw with seconds remaining. On the in-bound pass, Davis found a wide-open T.J. Cline for a layup that sent the game to a second overtime where Richmond won after a win-sealing block from Terry Allen.
When the teams became conference rivals once again in 2013, some thought that the rivalry might become watered down as the teams played twice a year instead of the annual contest in December.
However, the stakes of conference standings and postseason resumes have only intensified the emotions in the games.
“You’re battling them and you definitely want to have bragging rights in the city,” Davis said. “But the games are huge because they are conference games and we are battling for seeding and the standings.”
VCU won the Atlantic 10 tournament title last year, but the Spiders have picked up the most conference wins (82) of any A-10 team over the last seven years.
T.J. Cline, Richmond’s overtime hero in last season’s win talked about the lead up to this year’s game.
“It’s the most intense thing I have ever been a part of. Last year was incredible and we are expecting this year to be just as good. Heck, we were at dinner this week and our waitress went to VCU and was heckling us. We know what this means in this city.”
The series is undoubtedly the top rivalry between any two Atlantic 10 games, and it is arguably one of the most intense rivalries among conference foes outside of the Power 5 conferences.
“We are privileged to take part in one of the best aspects of the sport of college basketball,” says head coach Chris Mooney. “Many schools don’t have naturally great rivals, and we get to play ours in a home-and-home conference setting. It’s great for the fans. It’s great for the players and their families. It’s great for this city. This is something that all sports fan in this town get excited for. This is definitely the best basketball rivalry in the A-10 and one of the best in the country.”
On Saturday at 2 p.m., the 75th version of Richmond-VCU will tip off at the Robins Center in front of a sell-out crowd. There will be big plays and runs and perhaps another wild finish.
The crescendoing roars and cheers will echo for miles through central Virginia.