For two weeks, the refrain has been the same: “VCU is hot and the Rams have a chance to win, but this is going to be a really tough game for them. I’m not sure they can keep it up.”
For the fifth straight time, VCU has made the pregame prognostications obsolete. As a result, the Rams are going to the Final Four.
The lessons, as always: (1) Approach your bracket with the utmost, sincere humility. (2) Never doubt this Virginia Commonwealth team.
Facing a No. 1 seed and an overwhelming pro-Kansas crowd in San Antonio on Sunday, the Rams started hot, built a double-digit halftime lead and held off the bigger, stronger Jayhawks 71-61 after Kansas made its inevitable second-half run to cut the lead to two. Kansas was done in by bad defense in the first half and ugly shooting throughout, and with nothing falling down -- free throws included -- Bill Self’s team could never truly climb out of the hole dug by VCU’s hot shooting in the first half.
You don’t have to be a college basketball expert to realize how much of an upset this was. But, wow, what an upset. It practically defies description. Three weeks ago, the Rams -- losers of their final four regular-season conference games -- weren’t sure they were going to make the tournament. Now they have a legitimate chance to win the national title.
In other words: The Rams are everything we love about college basketball. VCU is the NCAA tournament. And so the magical run rolls on.
Turning point: KU's second-half run was inevitable. VCU was bound to slow down from 3-point range eventually, and the Jayhawks were able to create plenty of opportunities by owning the offensive boards throughout the game. As Kansas made that run -- cutting the lead to seven points with 15:43 remaining -- VCU coach Shaka Smart was assessed a technical foul by the referee, and all of a sudden, it looked like the Rams were in the midst of a second-half meltdown.
A couple of minutes later, Kansas shrank the gap to two points, and the Jayhawks looked like they were going to storm the Rams for the rest of the second half. Instead, after KU forward Marcus Morris made two free throws, the Jayhawks went unusually cold, and -- thanks to a pair of key baskets by Toby Veal and Darius Theus, and a pair of huge plays from forward Jamie Skeen -- VCU rebuilt its lead to double digits and never looked back. The Rams had stared No. 1 in the face and held tall. Meanwhile, Kansas cut the lead to two and proceeded to shoot 6-of-24 afterward, 0-of-10 from 3-point range. That's not standing tall.
Star of the game: Skeen is the obvious choice here. He had the box score’s best line -- 26 points, 10 rebounds, 4-of-7 from 3-point range -- and he made huge plays at the most important times for VCU down the stretch. (These plays ranged from huge shots to heady timeouts, as when Skeen stripped Marcus Morris under the rim and called a timeout to keep a late push by the Jayhawks at bay.) As always, though, VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez deserves a nod here, too. His line isn’t eye-popping, but his intelligent, poised play at the point is one of the main reasons VCU has been able to maintain its leads against favorites throughout this tournament. Sunday was no different.
Key stat: Without taking credit away from the Rams -- someone had to make all those first-half 3s, after all -- it’s fair to ask whether or not KU’s loss deserves the dreaded “choke” label. Whatever you want to call it, Kansas picked a really, really bad time to have its worst shooting game of the season.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the usually hot-shooting Jayhawks posted season lows in field goal percentage (35.5) and 3-point field goal percentage (9.1), which is about as bad as any team, let alone one that usually drains its open jumpers, can possibly shoot. Nor did it help that Kansas made only 53.6 percent of its free throws. The Jayhawks have always thrived on their ability to drain open shots this season. Needless to say, going 2-of-21 from 3-point range and 15-of-28 from the free throw line is not “thriving” on anything. If the Hawks hadn’t dominated the offensive glass so thoroughly, this game would have been another VCU blowout.
Another fun stat: When VCU hit 12 3s in its second-round win against Georgetown, it was a season high for the Rams. So all they've done since is hit 12 more against Florida State and another 12 today against Kansas. VCU shot just 32.1 percent from 2-point range (9-28), but 48 percent from 3-point range (12-25). Go figure.
History: Virginia Commonwealth is now one of three teams seeded 11th or lower to make the Final Four (LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006 were both 11s). ... The Rams are one of just four double-digit seeds to win a game by double digits in the Sweet 16 or later. ... Shaka Smart is 33. Butler coach Brad Stevens is 34. Both of them combined are younger than UConn coach Jim Calhoun (68).
What’s next: If it feels unfair to call this Kansas season “disappointing” -- the Jayhawks had a great year, won the Big 12 regular-season and conference tournament titles, and finished among the best eight teams in the country -- that’s only because this team and its fans had reason to expect so much more. Instead, Kansas ended another season with a loss to a bottom-half seed in the NCAA tournament, with shock and surprise and dismay and disgust.
VCU, meanwhile, will make a historic trip to the Final Four. The Rams will face Butler in the matchup of the two highest combined seed numbers (No. 8, No. 11) to ever meet in a national semifinal (second-highest is 14), and their win ensures that no No. 1 seed will attend the Final Four festivities for the third time since seeding began in 1979.
More than anything, though, VCU’s unlikely run to the Final Four merely proves what we always say about the NCAA tournament, and proves it more thoroughly than ever: You never know. That’s why we love this tournament, and that’s why people will always remember this team.
Even better? VCU's not done yet.