Saturday, March 26, 2011
VCU and Kansas know this story well
By Pat Forde
SAN ANTONIO -- With a few minor alterations to the plot, history is repeating itself here this weekend.
Virginia Commonwealth is the modern version of George Mason, 2006: a No. 11 seed from the Colonial Athletic Association that barely squeezed into the NCAA tournament, amid protest from the punditry. Now, after a startling run of upsets, the Rams face a seemingly unconquerable No. 1 seed for the right to go to the Final Four.
Kansas is the modern version of itself, 2008: a No. 1 seed blessed with a broken bracket and three mismatches on its way to a regional final date with a seemingly overmatched Cinderella.
Mason shocked the world in the '06 Elite Eight, beating Connecticut in double overtime to advance to the Final Four. It was the biggest underdog story in decades in college basketball.
Kansas survived its '08 regional final against No. 10 seed Davidson, 59-57, advancing to the Final Four here in San Antonio and winning its first national title in 20 years.
Sunday, the plotline ends for one of the two and continues for the other. Because they both can't win. But they both can recognize the similarities and draw from them.
VCU knows that its mission is improbable, not impossible.
"I remember watching [Geoge Mason]," VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said. "I remember the Connecticut game, too. It's cool they're from the same conference. I think it speaks volumes for the conference we have. ... Different team, different university. You can look at it for inspiration."
Kansas knows that its mission won't be easy, either. But its coach and senior class have at least been there and done that, as opposed to wondering what it's like to be there and do it. And they understand the pressure involved with a Final Four doorstep opportunity as a heavy favorite.
"As much as I said relax [in 2008], as much as I said enjoy the moment ... as much as I said we're in attack mode, it was a little different feel that game," Self said. "Especially when you're playing a team such as VCU -- Davidson, as you put it, kind of caught the imagination of America, and deservedly so. ... But our guys, if you told me before the game [against Davidson] we would have won by two, everyone would have sold out for that."
|Senior guard Joey Rodriguez knew all along that his VCU squad would get in the Big Dance.|
It'll be the same this time around. But once again, the expectation is that Kansas is the far superior team.
Other than ending up in this place against each other as two of the final six teams standing, there hasn't been much in common between the two this season. Kansas has been a prominent national title contender all along, its NCAA fate assured well before the brackets were revealed. The Jayhawks not only were in the field, they were a surefire No. 1 seed.
The Rams, meanwhile, were 9-5 in early January after a loss to lowly Georgia State, and a national afterthought. They lost their final four conference games of the regular season and finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association.
That, coupled with their loss in the CAA final to Old Dominion, left just about everyone predicting an NCAA snub on Selection Sunday. Everyone but point guard and amateur bracketologist Rodriguez.
"I had us in as a 12-seed," Rodriguez said with a grin.
His teammates were so unconvinced that come 6 o'clock Eastern Time on March 13, they didn't even bother watching the selection show. The coaches didn't organize anything for the team, fearing the letdown of rejection, and the players went their separate ways.
"I was just getting back to my room from Five Guys," said Bradford Burgess.
"I was in my room watching Cartoon Network," said Ed Nixon.
I think we have made a name for ourselves to this point -- but it can always be a bigger name if we beat Kansas.
-- VCU forward Jamie Skeen
"I was doing homework," said Brandon Rozzell.
"I was eating alone," said Jamie Skeen.
Only the team bracketologist had the faith to watch. When he saw VCU's name on the board, he began pounding on doors in his apartment complex and shouting the news.
At Great Wraps, Skeen's cell phone began blowing up. He didn't answer it.
"I had buffalo sauce on my hands," he explained. "I have an expensive phone and I didn't want to ruin it."
Even as he saw the calls coming in, Skeen couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. A fifth-year senior who transferred from Wake Forest -- and still wears a Wake Forest T-shirt under his game jersey -- he was so depressed about playing his entire career without making the Big Dance that he didn't even let the thought enter his mind.
Finally, he wiped his hands and answered a call from his high school coach, who delivered the news. VCU was in.
Then, like classic party crashers, the Rams took over the joint. After four victories against teams from the big leagues -- Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten and ACC -- they now get their shot at the champions of the Big 12.
"Anytime a mid-major school goes against a big-time school, automatically their eyes get big," Skeen said. "We want to get a name for ourselves. I think we have made a name for ourselves to this point -- but it can always be a bigger name if we beat Kansas."
If VCU becomes just the third double-digit seed to make the Final Four, it will be one of the magic names of March. A Masonesque, if you will.
But there is a competing storyline, and a competing powerhouse.
Kansas has its own history it is trying to repeat.
|Dealing with upstart mid-majors is nothing new to Kansas, which beat Davidson in 2008.|
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.