Virginia Commonwealth is enjoying its banner days
Reporting from Richmond, Va. — Banners commemorating each of Virginia Commonwealth’s nine previous NCAA men’s basketball tournament appearances hang from the rafters of the team’s home court at the Siegel Center.
Suffice to say, the 10th will be unique and raised amid much fanfare.
Question is: Will it be a Final Four or, dare we ponder, national championship banner?
“Making it to the NCAA tournament, I thought that was going to be a hard task,” Rams forward Jamie Skeen said Tuesday. “I never thought in a million years we could make it this far because of all the talent in America, all the talent at the big-time schools. But as you can see, we’ve been beating the big-time schools. It’s like, wow!”
If Skeen sounds stunned, imagine the rest of us.
VCU defeated USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to reach the Final Four in Houston, where the Rams face Butler in Saturday’s first semifinal.
Never had the Rams advanced to a regional, let alone a regional final or Final Four. Never has any team seeded so low — VCU was No. 11 in the Southwest Regional — won so many tournament games so convincingly. Four of its five victories have been by 10 or more points.
That explains why approximately 6,500 fans, more than attended seven Rams home games this season, flocked to the Siegel Center at 1 a.m. Monday to greet the team upon its return from San Antonio and Sunday’s upset of top-seeded Kansas.
That explains why folks waited up to four hours in line Monday for VCU Final Four apparel.
“It’s really galvanized thousands behind the black and gold,” Coach Shaka Smart said, referring to the Rams’ colors, “and people are going nuts. Everybody wants to go to Houston.”
There, VCU faces last season’s upstart, the modest program that took Duke to the brink in the national championship game.
“That’s one of the magical things about what Butler did last year is, they made a lot of teams out there, a lot of coaches out there, believe we can do it,” Smart said.
“I think every mid-major was rooting for them,” Rams point guard Joey Rodriguez said. “After seeing that, I thought anything is possible.”
Still, as recently as a week ago, the notion of VCU winning the national championship seemed preposterous. But then the Rams survived Florida State, 72-71, in overtime and whipped Kansas, 71-61.
And anyone who watched that Kansas game knows that if VCU continues to shoot and defend as it has these last two weeks, victories over Butler and the Kentucky-Connecticut winner are feasible.
“We feel we’ve been the most dominant team in the tournament,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no doubt in my mind we can win it all. It’s crazy to say, but when you look back at what we’ve done …”
“If you reseeded the tournament based on how people played, VCU would be a No. 1 seed,” Butler Coach Brad Stevens said Monday during a teleconference.
And Smart, 33, would be a rock star. Newspapers, websites and networks are rushing to chronicle his rise from point guard at Division III Kenyon College in Ohio to Final Four coach.
“I can’t sing very well,” Smart said, “but if they want to make me a rock star because of what Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess and the rest of our team have done, I guess that’s the way it works. But it doesn’t change me at all.”
Smart’s uplifting story took a very human turn Tuesday morning when his 91-year-old grandfather died in suburban Chicago after a lengthy illness. Walter King used to cut out basketball articles from the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times and mail them to his grandson.
“My grandfather meant a great deal,” Smart said, pausing at the memory. “He taught me humility, appreciation, taught me how to interact with people. I was raised by my mom, and a lot of times when kids are raised only by a woman, you need a male influence to teach you certain things that only a man can teach you, and he was there for me to do that.”
Before the Rams’ opening tournament game against USC, Smart told them about his grandfather’s failing health and indelible impact.
“All he asked was for us to win that game,” Rodriguez said. “Now we’re trying to win the whole thing for him. That would be special.”
David Teel is a columnist for the Daily Press of Newport News, Va.
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