VCU: First Four to Final Four
SAN ANTONIO – A few hours before securing one of the most unlikely Final Four berths in NCAA tournament history, three members of Virginia Commonwealth’s basketball squad – Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon and Bradford Burgess – stood face to face with Kansas’ Morris twins in the middle of the Alamodome court.
Within seconds, what was supposed to be a customary pregame handshake between captains turned into much more.
“They were like, ‘Y’all had a good little run, but now it’s time to go home,’” Nixon said.
The Rams are headed back to Virginia, all right – but only to pack their bags for the Final Four.
Virginia Commonwealth is destined for Houston following Sunday’s jaw-dropping 71-61 victory over the Jayhawks, who entered the game as the lone No. 1 seed remaining in the NCAA tournament and the heavy favorite to win the national title.
Instead, it’s the No. 11 seed Rams who advanced to Saturday’s national semifinal against No. 8 seed Butler. For the first time in history, the Final Four will be void of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
“We shocked the world,” guard Brandon Rozell said, “but we didn’t shock ourselves.”
Such confidence is the only way to explain the postseason success of a team that finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association and entered the tournament toting losses in five of its previous eight games.
The Rams were so convinced they wouldn’t be included in the 68-team field that most of them didn’t even watch the NCAA Tournament Selection show on March 13. Nixon was tuned in to Cartoon Network, Rozell was working on a homework assignment and Jamie Skeen went out for a sub sandwich.
Upon learning they’d earned a berth, VCU’s players spent the next 48 hours listening to analysts bash the selection committee for granting them a bid over “more deserving” teams such as Colorado, Virginia Tech and Alabama.
All the Rams have done since then is defeat teams from the Pac-10 (USC), the Big East (Georgetown), the Big Ten (Purdue), the ACC (Florida State) and the Big 12 (Kansas). As one of the last four teams selected, VCU had to open the tournament in the “First Four” in Dayton, meaning they’ve played an extra game than the other schools that advanced to the Final Four.
“We’re like Forrest Gump,” Nixon said. “Forrest Gump started running. He got to the city and was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to keep running.’ That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep running, keep playing, until we get to where we want to go.”
The Morris twins weren’t the only ones who thought Virginia Commonwealth’s run would end Sunday. The Jayhawks, who entered the game with a 35-2 record, tout five future NBA draft picks in their rotation and appeared to have a huge advantage down low with the Morris brothers and Thomas Robinson.
Just as he has throughout the tournament, Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart set up a television in the middle of the Rams’ locker room and played a motivational video for his team shortly before it took the court. Sunday’s video featured snippets of analysts such as Jay Bilas, Hubert Davis and Greg Anthony picking Kansas to beat VCU.
“There were all these clips of guys saying, ‘I got Kansas,’ or, ‘I’m picking Kansas,’ or ‘Kansas is going to win this one,’ ” Burgess said. “All we heard was ‘Kansas, Kansas, Kansas’ over and over and over.”
It was a brilliant motivational ploy by the 33-year-old Smart, who was hired two years ago to replace Anthony Grant. By the time the Rams met Kansas’ captains at midcourt just before tipoff, they were as fired up as they’d been the entire tournament.
The Jayhawks had developed a reputation as college basketball’s bad boys by getting into a pregame shoving match with Richmond and trash-talking with the Spiders in the tunnel the day before their 20-point victory in the Sweet 16.
When Marcus and Markieff Morris tried their intimidation tactics before Sunday’s game, the Rams were hardly surprised.
“I saw what they did to Richmond so I knew something like that was coming,” Rodriguez said. “I was expecting it. I took it for what it was worth.”
“The media must’ve gotten to them,” Nixon said. “They must’ve thought it was already theirs. They were pretty confident. Maybe too confident.”
Kansas jumped to a 6-0 lead before suffering a collapse that would extend into the second half. Jayhawks fans watched in horror as VCU made nine 3-pointers before intermission while forcing Kansas to shoot just 31.3 percent from the field.
Bill Self’s squad trailed 41-27 at halftime before pulling within 46-44 with 13:11 remaining. Kansas, though, fouled Skeen while shooting a 3-pointer on Virginia Commonwealth’s ensuing possession. Skeen made two of three free throws to make it a four-point game, and the Rams responded again by converting a turnover by Marcus Morris into an easy lay-up that gave them a six-point cushion.
Fatigued from the effort it took to dig out of an 18-point hole, Kansas never really threatened again in a loss that almost seemed hard to fathom. Well, maybe not for everyone.
“It’s not difficult to believe,” Self said. “We got beat by a team that was better than us today. I almost felt like we tried too hard. I don’t remember a time this year when we missed so many shots, so many bunnies.”
The swagger that defined Kansas the entire tournament was missing Sunday. Instead the Jayhawks appeared timid and, frankly, scared, throughout most of the game. Kansas missed 19 of its 21 attempts from 3-point range and clanked 13 free throws. Making the loss even more disheartening was that it came before a crowd of 14,299 people – almost all of whom were Jayhawk fans.
“To be honest,” Skeen said, “I got nervous (when Kansas was making its comeback). It was so loud I couldn’t even hear the plays we were calling.”
In the end, it hardly mattered, as the uptight and rattled Jayhawks missed shot after shot after shot.
“This was probably the best game they played, ever,” Markieff Morris said. “It’s probably their best game ever as a school tonight. We let them beat us. We let them.”
Skeen (26 points) and Rozell (12) scored a collective 38 points and were a combined 8-for-14 from 3-point range.
“Their players could play for us any day,” Self said. “If we played shirts and skins today you wouldn’t have much of a difference on players and how they look. They’ve got some good-looking kids. They got what they deserved today. They outplayed us.”
Try as he may to minimize the defeat, Self may never be able to live this loss down simply because it is yet another stunning upset for a school that, since 2005, has fallen to Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU in the NCAA tournament. As much as it’s defined by winning the 2008 NCAA title, Self’s legacy – at least so far – is equally marred by losses to inferior teams during the postseason.
Smart, meanwhile, has advanced to the Final Four in his first year in the tournament. A former assistant under Billy Donovan (Florida) and Oliver Purnell (Clemson), Smart did his best to keep his composure as his players celebrated in the postgame locker room.
As he glanced at the players sitting in front of the various stalls, Smart had to have been moved by what he saw.
There was Rodriguez, the 5-foot-10 point guard who was busy looking at pictures on his cell phone of VCU fans celebrating back in Richmond.
“You can’t walk anywhere on Broad Street,” he said. “It’s exciting back there.”
Rodriguez threatened to transfer to Division II Rollins College near his hometown of Orlando once Grant left for the Alabama job two years ago. Rodriguez changed his mind, returned to campus and is now one of Smart’s biggest supporters. Rodriguez laughed when asked what he’d be doing if he hadn’t returned to VCU.
“Probably playing Florida Tech or something,” he said.
Near another locker was Burgess, the hero of Friday’s overtime win against Florida State, and then there was Skeen, who transferred from Wake Forest three years ago and now appears destined for the NBA after Sunday’s standout performance against the Morris twins. Skeen had 10 rebounds to go along with his 26 points and was named the Most Outstanding Performer of the Southwest Regional.
“People thought I was washed up,” Skeen said, “but I knew VCU had a future for me.”
The question now is what kind of future is in store at Virginia Commonwealth for Smart, who will surely be considered for openings at schools such as North Carolina State, Missouri, Oklahoma and others. Smart, though, was too caught up in the moment Sunday to think that far ahead. After snipping away at the last few strands of cotton, Smart yanked the Alamodome net away from the rim and draped it over his head.
“We weren’t 35-2 coming into this game,” Smart said, “but we’re playing our best basketball when it matters most. That’s why I’m here with this net around my neck.”
Smart waved to the crowd of VCU fans chanting his name and holding signs that read “Shaka Shocker.” Speaking into a microphone, his message to them was simple.
“We’re not done yet,” he said.