One Cinderella

Mike Wise
Columnist April 3, 2011

Something about Saturday night’s Little Teams That Could national semifinal didn’t feel right in the beginning. Now that it’s over — now that Butler is moving forward again and Virginia Commonwealth returns to Richmond with a tremendous tale but ultimately no trophy — it feels even worse.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Rocky Balboa shouldn’t be allowed to knock himself out. The good guys shouldn’t eliminate each other. They should keep drumming the bad guys from Connecticut, which staved off Kentucky in the nightcap.

When the most unlikely underdog Final Four matchup since perhaps Texas Western-Utah in 1966 happens, of course someone has to lose. And there will be plenty who argue that at least they bowed to one of their own, and weren’t bludgeoned by 20 points or more by one of college basketball’s traditionally elite programs.

But from courtside, VCU being sent packing by Butler, 70-62, in a game of this magnitude — a mid-major program snuffing out the dreams of another a step shy of the title game — has got to be a little tougher mentally to digest for the loser. VCU only knocked out giants from the Pacific-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 — before the Rams were undone by the pride of the Horizon League.

Goodbye, VC-New. Hello, Original Party Crashers.

Really, if someone had told you after Butler’s pixie-dust run ended at the buzzer against Duke in the championship game a year ago, “Oh, don’t worry, they’ll be back next year,” you would have either smirked or said it was too soon for such gallows humor, that the kids aren’t even done crying in the locker room.

When Butler’s unflappable coach, Brad Stevens, was asked if anyone mentioned that to him last season, he smiled and said, “No,” adding, in a genuine moment of reflection, “If you think about it, it really is unfathomable.”

The truth: There were only two likable programs here this weekend, and one of them just went home.

You almost feel sorry for Connecticut’s Kemba Walker and Kentucky’s Brandon Knight, as crazy as that sounds. The reputations of Huskies Coach Jim Calhoun and Wildcats Coach John Calipari preceded them long before either kid signed a scholarship, and it directly impacted how their teams have been viewed in Houston this weekend.

The night before Connecticut and Kentucky matched up in Saturday’s blue-blood semifinal, allegations over illegal benefits received by a player resurfaced, a scandal that already got Calhoun docked three Big East games next season by the NCAA. On the Wildcats’ side, there were revelations that a Calipari staffer had obliterated the rules by making impermissible phone calls to recruits, apparently simultaneously for Memphis and Kentucky.

The good news is, the survivor of the Little Teams That Could semifinal would get a chance to suit up against the Philistines on Monday night and bring the big, bad and very unseemly giant down.

And who better than the kids from Butler, who now have a shot to rewrite their ending from last year, the one that saw Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot ricochet off the rim at the buzzer against Duke.

They’re back? They’re back.

Matt Howard was indefatigable Saturday and flat-out sealed the game in the final minutes while playing with four fouls. The shaggy mop atop his head shook as he put back a miss with less than a minute left, and then grabbed a monster rebound on the other end, drew a foul and converted free throws to push Butler ahead by eight, 65-57.

Shelvin Mack was a study in poise, rebounding from a slow start and refusing to be lured into VCU Coach Shaka Smart’s up-tempo game that was supposed to rattle and roll the Bulldogs.

VCU led by eight points early and began knocking down three-pointers as it had this entire tournament. But Butler treated the Rams like a large fish it had hooked; the Bulldogs let VCU run with the line but always reeled the Rams back in and got back to rebounding and a more physical game inside.

At one juncture, Mack went on a 10-0 binge by himself, dropping in long jumpers from beyond the arc and knifing to the basket with black-and-gold jerseys all over him.

In the end, it was only fitting that role players the casual fan might never have heard of — Zach Hahn, Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant — played crucial roles in sending the Bulldogs back to the title game.

That they had to KO another program with one-tenth the recruiting budget of Calipari or Calhoun was collateral damage along the way that can’t be helped.

Still, you had to feel for the VCU kids coming up short, especially after the school sold out its allotment of tickets and the support for the Rams in Richmond was phenomenal, given that most college basketball fans had never heard the name Shaka or Skeen or Joey Rodriguez just a month ago.

“What our guys accomplished over the past four weeks is terrific,” Smart said afterward, appearing to catch himself before he lost tears on the podium.

Rodriguez and Bradford Burgess’s eyes were predictably red on the dais after the game. Skeen, who battled Howard as well as he could inside, was a picture of defiance, saying he had no desire to root for any team that beat VCU, no matter its small size.

In time, he should change his mind. Because when Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack and Butler (enrollment 4,300) take the court before 75,000-plus on Monday night, they’re not merely playing for themselves; they’re playing for every non-power conference program that ever dreamed it could actually play in the championship game of the NCAA tournament — let alone do it all over again.

They’re playing for everyone who facetiously called this game a Bracket Buster, a Horizon League-Colonial Athletic Association tilt, something ESPN2 would have televised in mid-February to weed out the teams that didn’t belong.

Well, they did belong, and one remains. What’s that saying from the kid in the locker room at the end of “Hoosiers” — “This is for all the small schools that never got here.”

That’s unbelievably corny and sappy. Monday night, it is also true.

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