Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 9:31 p.m.
NCAA TOURNAMENT CENTRAL
By Chris Knoche
It is both tempting and inevitable when college basketball fans look at the improbable run of
VCU in this NCAA tournament that they immediately turn to the equally amazing run by their
conference comrades at George Mason. The parallels are really almost eerie.
Both entered the tournament as 11 seeds. Both drew the ire of all the smart guys in TV land. As a result, both had to endure scorn and ridicule before they played their first game.
And both kicked butt and took names.
Mason ran through the Big Ten (Michigan State 76-65) and the ACC (North Carolina 65-60)
on the opening weekend of the tournament. Then, after defeating Wichita State in the Sweet
16, the Patriots plundered the pride of the Big East in a heart-stopping overtime win over
Connecticut at Verizon Center to capture the hearts of the entire nation on their way to the Final Four.
That they lost to eventual national champion Florida seemed inconsequential both at the time
and in retrospect. At that point, they were playing with house money. The beauty of it was that the house was the big-time basketball establishment that regularly makes it difficult for teams like those in the CAA to ever ascend to that point.
Similarly, VCU has beaten teams from virtually every major conference on its way to the Final
Four this weekend. The Rams started with a win over Southern California in the First Four and
have not let up one iota.
They had their obligatory close call in an overtime win against Florida State in the Sweet 16 but have pretty much hammered everybody else. They trashed Georgetown of the Big East and then never gave Purdue a chance in the second round of the tournament. That game was over at halftime. After the scare against Florida State, VCU humbled Kansas of the Big 12 in the regional final to advance to Houston this weekend for a shot that seemed so unlikely just a few short weeks ago.
Do they have a chance? Yes, of course. Is it a better chance than Mason had? Definitely. Will this change the landscape of college hoops? Hold your horses there, Skippy.
About that chance Theories abound about why mid-majors are more competitive than ever
in the NCAA tournament. You cant overthink this. The simple reasons are the lack of dominant NCAA goliaths like weve seen in the past and an overwhelming number of really capable players and coaches who inhabit the mid-major universe.
It also seems to me that mid-majors have done a little better job of incorporating things like the three-point shot into their programs. Some of that is done, of course, so that things like we are seeing right now are possible that they can compete on a one-game basis with the biggest schools in the country when the game is played on a neutral court and shots are falling.
Why are the Rams chances better than Masons? Mason was in completely uncharted waters.
I think its run in 2006 actually has made it a little easier for VCU. Its great to have that kind
of lesson in your memory banks. The thing that also really worked against Mason was drawing Florida in that semifinal game. That Florida team was on its first leg of back-to-back national championships and would handle UCLA easily two nights later to win the trophy. The Gators were big, experienced, well-coached and motivated. They went to Indianapolis fully expecting to be wearing nylon around their necks on Monday night.
VCU may very well feel that way right now. With all due respect to what the Rams have
accomplished, they will be playing the single best story left in the NCAA tournament a Butler team making its second consecutive Final Four appearance out of the Horizon League.
While Butler is no doubt as formidable an opponent as you can find at this stage, it still beats
playing either Kentucky or Connecticut in the other bracket. Im sure VCU coach Shaka Smart and his staff are thinking: Lets get the pace of this game up and find a way to survive this game and let the other two teams beat the hell out of each other.