Six years ago, George Mason did the impossible, upsetting its way to the Final Four. In 2010 Butler made impossible happen again, getting within one half-court heave of a national title.
By the time last year’s title game ended, we were all believers that impossible was easily doable after watching Butler and Virginia Commonwealth claim two of the coveted last four spots in college basketball.
Which leads to the simple question: who’s got next?
This season, all mid-major eyes have been on Murray State, Creighton and Harvard.
Don’t look now, but some familiar names are gaining steam. On Tuesday night, VCU and George Mason will meet in a Colonial Athletic Association clash. Both, along with Drexel, are 13-2 in conference. The Rams have 22 wins, the Patriots 21. VCU has won 11 in a row, 9 of its past 10.
Before the Final Four veterans tipped off, ESPN.com caught up with Shaka Smart, who nearly a year after he owned Houston is still talking about his team’s storybook run.
How do you get over the hangover from last year’s Final Four run?
Shaka Smart: At our first team meeting of the year, I gave the guys pocket-sized cards, black and gold. On one side it had our motto for this year and [on] the other it said, ‘It’s over.’ I told them that I wanted them to keep the cards in their wallets or somewhere they could reference them and see them every day. I told them people are going to want to bring up last year 100 times a day. I want them to be polite, to acknowledge what people are asking, to indulge them even, but in your mind say, ‘It’s over.’
It never goes away. It’s still all anyone wants to talk about. I’ll be doing an interview, or someone on the team will, and it’s about something completely different, but inevitably it turns to last March. It comes with the territory.
So what’s this year’s motto then?
SS: Well, I haven’t told anyone that, but I’ll tell you. It’s ‘Own today.’ We talk a lot about taking ownership individually and as a team. The today part is about getting away from the past and not worrying about the future.
They’ve been pretty good about it. It’s a work in progress every day for all of us when we wake up. I’ll tell guys, ‘Too much past and future right now. Get back to right now,’ but for the most part, they’ve been very good.
With Butler’s success, as well as your own and George Mason’s, has the bar been raised for mid-majors?
SS: What Butler did was on a whole different level than us and Mason -- back-to-back years of being 40 minutes away from winning the thing.
But I think it’s less surprising now. I remember maybe seven years ago (Akron coach) Keith Dambrot told me, ‘One of these years a mid-major is going to win the whole thing.’ I thought he was out of his mind. Then right around then, Saint Joseph’s went to the Elite Eight and Keith said, ‘See? I told you.’
I think what’s happened is, people realize this can happen. I still don’t think anyone is out there predicting it, not even with Butler, but every year there’s some mid-major -- this year it’s Creighton or Murray -- that has a lot of experience, that isn’t afraid of the big boys, and people start thinking.
Because of the culture of the game, it’s such a small world with AAU and the non-conference schedule, there are more and more matchups against bigger teams, so there’s less of a fear. You don’t see that fear of the big boys anymore.
You’ve won 11 in a row after a slow start. What’s changed?
SS: Coming into the season, we had a completely new roster. We lost five players, four of our top scorers and some guys who played significant but minor roles last year were now playing significant but major roles.
Even Bradford Burgess, he’s in a completely different position, because now he’s Batman. He’s used to being Robin. Even in high school, he played with Ed Davis, so he had never had to be the guy, the focal point of a scouting report, and it took some time to adjust to that.
I think we’ve really made progress each month of the season, but we’re still a work in progress.
So what do you need to do in this big game against George Mason?
SS: We have to rebound better than we did in our last game. We got pummeled on the glass against Old Dominion. We have to do a good job on Ryan Pearson, who I think is arguably the best player in our conference. He’s the toughest matchup, I think, in our league because he can do so much. He’s dangerous around the basket, and he’s strong and savvy.
Our team, we’re much better this year defensively than we were a year ago, but we’re not as good offensively.
And unfortunately the scoreboard only moves one way.