Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

VCU basketball makes another mid-major statement with win over Kansas

Their 155-pound point guard, dribbling madly around the basketball court, would need a phone book under his sneakers to clear 6 feet. Their center, who decided life at one of the nation’s most esteemed programs was not for him, appears to be better at three-point shots than the ones he takes closer to the basket. Even their cocksure young leader who preaches controlled chaos — he turns 34 in two weeks — seems unorthodox, almost out of place among the giants of college basketball.

The good thing is, pedigree and power conferences don’t always dictate who gets a chance to play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

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Move over, Butler. Virginia Commonwealth University is crashing the Final Four. Fans gathered in Richmond on Sunday to celebrate the monumental upset over Kansas. (March 27)

Move over, Butler. Virginia Commonwealth University is crashing the Final Four. Fans gathered in Richmond on Sunday to celebrate the monumental upset over Kansas. (March 27)

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The good thing is, Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, Coach Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth got in.

And once that happened, the improbable followed in lockstep.

In case you were napping and missed the most scintillating NCAA tournament upset in five years, the Rams from Richmond pulled a George Mason on Sunday, blowing out top-seeded Kansas in the first half of the tournament’s Southwest Region final before repelling a wild second-half rally and pulling away at the end.

School That Many Fans (and Very Prominent ESPN Analysts) Did Not Think Deserved a Bid 71, K-Who? 61.

The four teams considered to be the nation’s best receive No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament and supposedly have the easiest path to the Final Four. All four this year have lost, which means the Final Four, to begin Saturday night in Houston, won’t have a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006 and for just the third time ever. If that isn’t crazy enough, consider this: there won’t be any No. 2 seeds playing, either. It’ll be the first Final Four without a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed.

The highest-seeded team left, No. 3 Connecticut, will face fourth-seeded Kentucky in a battle of blue bloods in one national semifinal. Eighth-seeded Butler and No. 11 VCU, those two mid-major darlings, will play in the other.

Rodriguez, skittering around the floor with no discernible destination in mind, found cutting teammates for scores and befuddled Kansas’s guards. Skeen, the one who found life at Wake Forest of the ACC not to his liking, outplayed Kansas’s twin towers, Marcus and Markieff Morris, showing clearly he was the more versatile and clutch and better big man.

And Smart outwitted Kansas Coach Bill Self, who won the national title just three years ago, as VCU became the first 11th-seeded team to advance to the Final Four since George Mason, its Colonial Athletic Association compatriot, did it five years ago by beating top-seeded Connecticut at Verizon Center.

For the CAA, this is essentially Cinderella squared.

“What we did in ’06 was like [Roger] Bannister breaking the four-minute mile,” George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said Sunday night. “It broke the barrier and gave mid-major [programs] a clear idea that they could make it to the Final Four. Butler almost beating Duke last year in the championship has given every mid-major program the hope that the national championship can be won by someone not from a big conference — if that team plays extremely well for three weeks.”

Butler, a 4,500-student school in Indianapolis, defeated Florida on Saturday night and advanced to its second Final Four in a row behind another young coach — 34-year-old Brad Stevens looks like Pete Sampras about to hit puberty. Because the Bulldogs face VCU in one semifinal, another mid-major program — in other words, a team without the pedigree of the nation’s giants — is guaranteed to be in the national title game.

Sooner or later, the power-conference hold on the trophy will go the way of the fifth-year senior in college basketball.

VC-Who? VCU.

Let’s pause briefly to remember the misguided lot who sadly still cling to the belief that the Rams did not deserve a bid.

Okay, now let’s have at these deluded souls.

Yes, VCU finished fourth in the CAA, its unglamorous conference home, the perpetual little brother to the tradition-rich ACC and the hulking Big East, which received a record 11 bids to this year’s NCAA tournament. At one point this season, the Rams lost four out of five and looked abjectly awful. But so did Kansas on Sunday, chucking up three-pointer after three-pointer as if it didn’t have a superior inside game.

The Rams speak to the beauty of the tournament better than any team this year — the idea that all you really need is a chance to become a special team over three delirious weeks of buzzer-beaters and upsets and routs and dunks and detractors.

And boy, did VCU ever have many of the latter, especially those who get to stand on the giant television soapbox called ESPN.

Dick Vitale (“No shot, none whatsoever”). Jay Bilas (“Tough to justify” the Rams’ inclusion). In its own state, many wondered why Virginia Tech was left out of the party again.

“I’m not going to put words in Jay Bilas’s mouth,” Larranaga said. “But when he says they didn’t earn the right, hey, Jay, you didn’t study them to the depth the committee did. They now deserve everyone’s respect for what they’ve done.”

Charles Barkley, the basketball Hall of Famer and now a television commentator, may have said it best on Sunday night’s postgame show: “Remember when everybody said they shouldn’t be in the tournament? I think they can tell everybody to shut the hell up now.”

What no one realized is, the college game has more parity than ever — especially as the big schools lose their best players to the NBA after sometimes only a year and the smaller schools hold on to players usually until their senior season.

Smart knows this. As Larranaga, the original underdog, can attest: “When you listen to experts, they think there is a wide discrepancy. There isn’t. The very simple reason: it starts back with AAU basketball [where the nation’s top high school prospects play over their summer vacations]. Players who have big reputations get highly recruited. Players who don’t have big reputations, they often go under the radar. If you can get a few of those players — and they can play and they might have a chip on their shoulder — you don’t have to have a McDonald’s all-American at every position to have a great team.”

In this year's NCAA tournament, VCU was supposed to lose to Southern California of the Pacific-10, Georgetown of the Big East, Purdue of the Big Ten, Florida State of the ACC and now Kansas of the Big 12. That leaves only the Southeastern Conference, and the Rams can take care of that if it meets Kentucky in the national title game.

Bottom line, this was for every detractor of tournament expansion; without 68 teams, there is no Virginia Commonwealth.

This was for every big-conference coach who kept politicking for more bloated, big-school brackets.

This was for every naysayer who derisively asked, “VC-who?”

VC-who? VCU.

 
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