The following was written for my Sports Journalism class (J475) at the University of Wisconsin, using quotes obtained from postgame press conference transcripts and stories on ESPN.com, FOXSports.com, and the New York Times.
From First Four to Final Four.
Two weeks ago, Virginia Commonwealth was on the bubble. A few days later, they were in Dayton as one of the last four teams into the NCAA tournament. From there, the Rams went to Chicago and San Antonio, embarrassing major conference teams along the way.
Now, after humbling No. 1 seed Kansas with a 71-61 victory, the VCU team that many believed did not even belong in the tournament is headed to the Final Four in Houston.
“Once again, we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game,” said Shaka Smart, the 33-year-old VCU head coach, to open the postgame press conference. “But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. We talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think. That’s our theme throughout the NCAA tournament since we were selected.
“Our guys have done a phenomenal job putting all the doubters aside, putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside and going out and doing their job.”
It did not matter that ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said VCU’s inclusion in the field of 68 was “indefensible.” Nor did it matter that Bilas’ colleague Joe Lunardi questioned whether the Rams’ defense could guard even him.
VCU did not even watch the selection show together on March 13, because Smart himself did not believe his team would be selected. Once they were, however, and once so many questioned whether they were deserving of such selection, Smart used those words as motivation throughout the first five rounds of the tournament.
Before the tipoff against the Jayhawks, one of KU’s star players was added to the list.
“You guys have had a good run,” forward Marcus Morris told Virginia Commonwealth guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell, according to ESPN.com. “But now it’s over.”
Morris’ words, much like those of Bilas and Lunardi before him, inspired and motivated VCU. Even after an impressive run of four wins over tough opponents to get there, few expected the Rams to even compete with the Jayhawks, especially after Kansas’ 20-point victory over 12th-seeded Richmond two days earlier.
Not only did they compete, Smart’s VCU squad shocked the basketball world, dominating the highest-seeded team remaining in the field. After giving Kansas the first six points of the game, the Rams’ hot shooting put them up by as many as 18 points in the first half, and by 14 at the half.
“We’ve played our best basketball when it matters most,” Smart said. “That’s why I’m sitting up here with a net around my neck.”
After controlling the game for the first 20 minutes, VCU held off Kansas’ comeback effort, which saw the Jayhawks go on a 12-0 run to cut the lead to four points just five minutes into the second half. The Rams would never give up their lead, despite letting KU get within two points following a Tyshawn Taylor 3-point play with 13:13 remaining.
From that point, VCU outscored Kansas 25-17 the rest of the way, the last six points of which came on free throws in the game’s final minute. Three-point baskets by forward Jamie Skeen, Rodriguez and guard Bradford Burgess, three of the Rams’ 12 made 3-pointers in the game, helped VCU retake the momentum and extend its lead.
Despite being on the verge of giving control of the game back to the Jayhawks early in the second half, when it looked like the Rams’ incredible tournament run was on the verge of ending, VCU never let the pressure of the big moment affect it.
“All the pressure was on them,” Burgess told the New York Times. “They were the No. 1 seed, and no one expected us to be here.”
VCU is just the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four, with LSU having done so in 1986 and Colonial Athletic Association rival George Mason accomplishing the feat in 2006. But neither got there in as impressive a way as the Rams did.
LSU won four games by an average of 4.3 points, while Mason won four by 6.3 points. Both beat No. 1 seeds by two points in the regional finals. VCU won its five games by an average of 12 points.
In each of those five games, the Rams have knocked off a major conference opponent that was expected to beat them.
“We don’t back down,” VCU freshman guard Rob Brandenburg told FOXSports.com.
First, it was Pac-10 opponent USC by 15 points in Dayton. In Chicago, VCU knocked off Georgetown of the Big East and Purdue of the Big Ten by 18 points apiece. Finally, in San Antonio, VCU battled ACC foe Florida State to a one-point overtime victory before upsetting Big XII champion Kansas by 10 points.
For good measure, the Rams will face Butler, a fellow mid-major, in the semifinals. But if it reaches the championship game, a potential matchup with SEC tournament champion Kentucky would give VCU a shot at a clean sweep of all six major conferences.
When the final buzzer sounded and VCU cut down the nets in front of its black-and-yellow clad fans at the Alamodome, the Rams had accomplished something no other team had ever done. They won five games en route to a Final Four berth.
It typically takes four to reach the final weekend, six to win the championship. But by virtue of their inclusion in the First Four, the Rams will need seven victories to complete their run.
“One last thing,” Smart told the VCU fans afterward, “we’re not done yet.”
INDIANAPOLIS — It took little more than three minutes for Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan to sense something wasn’t right about his team Friday against Penn State.
With the Badgers trailing 10-0 in their second round game at Conseco Fieldhouse, he called for an early timeout and made a couple substitutions. As play resumed, Ryan stood in front of senior forward Keaton Nankivil and freshman Josh Gasser.
“I just can’t believe that you can’t compete better than that,” a noticeably frustrated Ryan said to his two underperforming starters.
Two hours later, Nankivil sat in front of his locker fielding questions from reporters. Once again, Wisconsin had made an early exit from the Big Ten tournament, suffering an ugly 36-33 loss to Penn State.
With a week to prepare for the NCAA tournament, Nankivil was faced with the question of what they needed to do to get ready, and whether there was enough time to do so.
“I think we have a lot of guys in here, we need to rededicate ourselves, especially for us seniors,” Nankivil said. “At this point, it’s one-and-done for your college career.
“There better be enough time, because we don’t have much time left.”
Between sitting on the bench early in the game and sitting at his locker following the loss, Nankivil walked off the court along with his teammates, dejected after seeing a solid defensive effort stymied by an awful shooting performance offensively.
When asked after the game how he felt, Nankivil thought of that walk.
“To be honest with you, I walked off the court about as frustrated as I’ve ever been today,” he said.
It was the first time the Badgers had lost consecutive games since a six-game losing streak in January 2009.
On the other side of the room was Gasser, a guard who despite starting for the Badgers, is relatively inexperienced, especially when it comes to postseason play.
For the freshman out of Port Washington, Wis., the question came up about what was going on with the team that could allow them to give up its highest point total in years one game and score its fewest in years the next.
Put simply, he just didn’t know.
According to his head coach, it didn’t have to do with focusing too much on one thing.
“The story of the guy, the coach who asked one of his players how his grades went, and the kid said, three Fs and a D, do you know the answer the coach came back with? He says, “I’ve got the answer for you. You spent way too much time on one class,” said Ryan. “Defensively we couldn’t have done things any worse than we did in our last game. So before you ask did we spend all our time on defense, no, but it might have looked like that.”
Another starter, Tim Jarmusz, remained confident in the Badgers’ ability to come back in a week and begin a strong postseason run.
Despite looking a lot like recent Wisconsin teams that have struggled late in the regular season before making early exits from the postseason, Jarmusz insisted that it would not happen again.
“It’s a new year; it’s not going to be the same, it’s not last year,” he said. “We’re a good team, we can bounce back and we will. I know we will.
“This is a good team with a bunch of good guys. We’ll be out ready to play. This is the last go round for at least the six of us and we’re going to make the most of it.”