Maybe it would have felt the same way for Smart and VCU if that last-second shot against Drexel in the quarterfinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament had not gone in, and if the Dragons had beaten them in overtime. It would have been the same result. It would have been the end of things, the end of the NCAA tournament for the Rams - before it even began.
But that didn't happen and, yes, despite everything wonderful that took place afterward, this one wasn't any easier. Losing the national semifinal game against Butler, another mid-major that always has to be twice as good to earn the same respect as the big boys, was more terrible because the view from this stage was so great and so fleeting.
"I'm proud of them for what they've done and for staying together," Smart said. "But make no mistake about it, this one really stings."
In the final minute of Butler's 70-62 win, as Smart ordered his team to foul so he could sub out his three senior leaders, he had to swallow hard as he embraced them at the bench, and the postgame handshake with Brad Stevens of Butler was perfunctory. Stevens knew there was little he could say that would matter. Smart knew there was nothing he wanted to hear that could change the awful reality of the scoreboard.
There will be more perspective by the summer and fall. It was quite a ride for VCU. But competitors will always think more about how close they came rather than how far they went.
"We went out and we outplayed five BCS teams that we played in the NCAA tournament," Smart said. "It's a phenomenal run. It's really an historical run in NCAA tournament history. Something these guys did that will never be forgotten."
It was historic, particularly because no team has ever won five NCAA tournament games in the modern era without reaching the championship game. The NCAA put in an extra round this season and stuffed VCU into the Afterthought Bracket, probably expecting to never hear from the Rams again. But they beat Southern Cal (OK, whatever), Georgetown (Hmm. . .), Purdue (Huh?), Florida State in overtime (Oh, my), and then No. 1 seed Kansas (Oh . . . my . . . God!) to make it to Houston.
Along the way, as the team won those five games in the space of 12 days, Smart made sure his staff showed the team all the doubters on video, starting with those who said they shouldn't even be in the tournament, and right up until this weekend, when Butler emerged as the clear favorite. For once, the video guys were right.
They didn't have to be right, though. VCU could have won this game and seemed on the verge of taking control several times. The Rams have lived on a diet of three-point field goals in the tournament, and they erupted for five of them early in the game to take an eight-point lead. And then they went away from the perimeter game, opting to pound the ball inside against a rugged Butler defense that has a knack for being physical without being flagged.
Until Bradford Burgess chucked in a garbage-time three-pointer with 11 seconds left, VCU had made just three treys in the final 33 minutes. Because of that, Butler was able to win despite shooting just 36 percent from the field.
Butler did what it does, and did it very well. The Bulldogs won the rebounding battle, built up a huge advantage in second-chance points, and got to the free-throw line 26 times, exactly twice as much as VCU.
"I thought the foul disparity was significant," Smart said, stopping short of saying his team was poorly treated by the officials. "I do think some of the fouls kind of bogged down the game a little bit. But that's not what decided the game."
What decided the game was the random little things that always make the difference. VCU had at least four shots late in the second half that went down below the rim before choosing to emerge again like a cork from a geyser. There was another handful of uncontested layups that somehow bricked. It happens, but it hadn't happened for the last three weeks.
"They were open shots. Shots we've been making, you know?" senior guard Joey Rodriguez said. "If we watch the tape, I feel like a lot of those shots were in-and-outs. I almost felt like it wasn't supposed to happen or something."
No, it was supposed to happen eventually, but eventually just arrived later than expected for the Rams, and that's a good thing. It doesn't feel that way this weekend, though, and maybe it never will. Getting close doesn't necessarily make it easier, regardless of what most people say, and Virginia Commonwealth knows better than to trust what most people say - especially about them.
Contact columnist Bob Ford
at email@example.com and read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns