VCU: The Journey to the Unthinkable


The NCAA tournament is known to have upsets and madness, but nothing like this. After VCU’s upset win over the last remaining #1 seed Kansas, practically everyone’s bracket is busted. And no one believed that this team from Richmond, Virginia could do the unthinkable and get to college basektball’s Final Four. Why? Because no one believed they even deserved to be here.  So the big question is, how did they get here?

Let me show you a bit of a timeline:

shaka smart

Spring 2009: VCU hires some guy named Shaka Smart to take over for previous coach Anthony Grant, who left for Alabama.

March 2010: His first season was very up and down, but had some promise. Ended up missing the tournament, but goes onto win the CBI tournament. Shaka uses this to be a great launch pad for next year’s team because of the upper classmen returning.

Spring 2010: Shaka’s best player, Larry Sanders announces he is going into the NBA and gets selected in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks.  It’s a huge hit for the Rams as Sanders would have been a force for the upcoming season.

November 2010: VCU comes firing out of the gates. In the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament, they lose a back-and-forth game against a battle-tested Tennessee team.  The next game they played another tough “BCS” conference team in UCLA and win. Senior Jamie Skeen has a huge game and becomes the replacement for Larry Sanders. VCU looks like a promising tournament team.

December 2010: VCU plays 3 tough road games against South Florida, Richmond, and UAB – losing all 3. The havoc style of play that Coach Shaka Smart expects his players to play is working, but is causing problems for his team too. Too many turnovers are killing his team in close games.

January 2011: After a loss to Georgia State, VCU reels off 9 straight conference wins to start 10-1 in the conference. On this streak they beat Old Dominion, who was the preseason pick to win the conference and future conference tournament champion.

February 26, 2011: VCU loses its 4th in 5 games on Senior Night. This is when the team realized what it needed to do and “figured it out”. Seniors Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon, and Brandon Rozzelle are all honored before the game, but they don’t perform well defensively. The loss wakes them up and they vow to start playing “VCU ball.”

March 7, 2011: After beating the hottest team in the conference and regular season champion George Mason, the Rams fall to Old Dominion in the championship of the conference tournament. The auto bid is gone, the season looks wasted.  ESPN’s very own Joe Lunardi says that he can’t see them making the NCAA tournament now.

March 13, 2011: The selection committee includes VCU into the tournament.  They are a part of the new “First Four” games.  No one on ESPN’s panel thought they should get in, and 2nd year coach Shaka Smart used that to his advantage. Showing his team what everyone said about them not “deserving” their bid and some other team like Harvard, or Colorado, or Alabama get them fired up. The rest you know. They blast their way past USC, Georgetown, and Purdue the first week of the tournament. They are talked about, but still no one really gives them a chance. They win a very hard fought OT battle against a defensive Florida State team.

Then, the unthinkable happens: they beat the only remaining #1 seed left in Kansas. They seem a bit nervous and tight at the beginning, but that disappears as their 3 pointers start dropping. A 6-2 early deficit turns into a 20-10 lead and a 41-27 halftime lead.  VCU holds off a rally early in the 2nd half and Shaka doesn’t even call a timeout because he has that much faith in his team. The team repays him by showing resiliency and heart, and they pull out that upset. They are acting like they belong and not like they just did something only 2 other teams in the history of the tournament have done.  They are true champions and don’t seem to want this run to end.

If they don’t want this run to end they will have to beat the other surprise of the tournament in the Butler Bulldogs. Butler has had a similar journey to this point, but has already been here before coming within a Gordon Hayward buzzer beater from winning the National Championship. This is an experienced group and won’t look past VCU like other teams have. I see this VCU – Butler game being the better of the two Final Four games, but I see Butler coming out on top. They have a lot of experience and just as much heart and resiliency as VCU. But then again, VCU has proven everyone else wrong, why stop with me?

Ryan West
Twitter: @westrpw

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