March 27, 2011
VCU wasn't supposed to be in the tournament.
VCU heard the complaints, the comparisons, the criticisms. The Rams internalized them and during each of the five games they've won through the NCAA tournament, including Sunday's 71-61 win over Kansas, they've let all of that negativity fuel them to victory.
"Our guys are playing with a definite chip on the shoulder after what was said about us by the media on [Selection] Sunday night," coach Shaka Smart said during his press conference earlier in the week. "This group is extremely competitive and anytime they are challenged, they're going to respond and that's what we're seeing right now. They have a high level of energy and communication on both sides of the court. They are playing unselfish basketball and most importantly they're playing loose and having fun. All that breeds from playing with confidence, which our guys are doing right now."
Sunday was no exception.
Kansas had successfully intimidated its Sweet 16 opponent Richmond and thought it could do the same thing to VCU. VCU guard Joey Rodriguez told the media after the game that during a captains meeting with officials before tip-off, one Kansas' Morris twins offered him some parting words: "The run ends here."
Rodriguez told him, "We'll see."
The lowest remaining seed in the tournament wasn't going to be intimidated because it was playing with house money. It had no pressure and had nothing to lose. The Rams came out loose, played tough defense and started hitting 3-pointers like that guy named Jimmer.
Kansas was stunned, unorganized, intimidated. Everything the Jayhawks thought little VCU would be feeling was exactly what Kansas was projecting. Even in the second half, when Kansas went on a run to cut the lead to four, VCU dug in its heels and wouldn't let go of the lead. No matter how much Kansas pressed, VCU never wavered, never freaked out, never wilted. It made key shots and stops when it had to, and never let Kansas control the game.
"I believe in these guys," Smart told CBS sideline reporter Craig Sager after the game. "They've never wavered in their hard work and their resiliency. We knew Kansas was going to make a run in the second half, but we never gave up that lead and our guys kept fighting."
VCU has won five games to get to the Final Four, the first team to ever accomplish that feat. It's only the third No. 11 seed to make the Final Four, but neither George Mason (2006) nor LSU (1986) made it to the final. Unlike those teams, which lost to No. 3 Florida and No. 2 Louisville respectively, VCU will face one of its own in the Final Four. A mid-major showdown against No. 8 Butler might not exactly be a ratings booster, but it will guarantee that at least one team outside of the Big Six conferences makes the final. It's almost fitting since VCU has managed to defeat a team from the Pac-10 (USC), the Big East (Georgetown), the Big Ten (Purdue), one from the ACC (Florida State) and now one from the Big 12.
If VCU wins, it would the lowest seeded team to ever appear in the national championship. In 1985, No 8 Villanova won it all.
VCU and Butler are the highest combined seeds to play each other in a Final Four.
Regardless of the outcome, VCU has already proven its critics wrong with an amazing run that no one thought was possible out of a team that finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association and probably wouldn't have made the tournament had it not played in the finals of the conference tournament.
But counting the Rams out would also be a mistake They've been underdogs all tournament, including an 11½-point dog against Kansas, and found a way to win. Expect more of that attitude that has defined this team on Saturday.
"I'm just so happy for all of our guys and all of our fans, just everyone who believed in us all the way," Smart told Sager. "We had to win five games to get here, but we did it."