A closer look at VCU’s improbable run

VCU wasn't expected to make the NCAA Tournament. They weren't expected to win any games. But now they are just two wins away from a National Championship. (John Powell)

Selection Sunday is typically a big deal for mid-major programs that find themselves on the “bubble.” They often gather to watch the annual show to see if their name is called. Shaka Smart, head coach of the VCU Rams, did not gather his team that day. Not even he thought his team had a chance of making the field.

He was wrong.

On March 13, much to the surprise of the entire nation, the CBS college basketball crew announced that the Rams had been selected to compete in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

The NCAA selection committee took a lot of heat for including VCU in the field. Famous college basketball analysts such as Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale went after the committee fairly hard, saying that there were many other teams more deserving than the Rams and that the CAA did not warrant three representatives.

Based on resume, their argument against the Rams is hard to disagree with. At the conclusion of the regular season, VCU’s RPI was in the 80s and they finished fourth in the CAA. They did well in the Pre-Season NIT, but lacked many quality wins after that.

Apparently the committee knew something the rest of us didn’t.

But none of that matters now. The Rams did make the field of 68. And now they are in the field of four. The Final Four.

They are just the third team to ever reach the Final Four as a double-digit seed, the others being LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006. All three were 11 seeds.

So how did a team that finished fourth in the CAA behind Mason, Old Dominion and Hofstra become one of the last four teams standing?

It’s simple. They came out inspired by the criticism. The Rams’ star guard, Joey Rodriguez, tweeted, “Can’t wait to prove all these people wrong.” And he certainly did.

Their journey began in the “First Four” round, which was added to the tournament this year. The field had been 65 teams over the past few years, with just one play-in game for two 16-seeds. This year, however, they added three more play-in games, which opened the door for teams like VCU, USC, Clemson and UAB to enter the field.

The experts gave the Rams no chance to beat USC in the first round. Some of the “Bracketologists” on ESPN, such as Doug Gottlieb, even predicted USC to win multiple games in the Big Dance. The Rams, led by assist-machine Rodriquez and forward Jamie Skeen, took down the Trojans with ease, setting the stage for a second round meeting with Georgetown.

This was the perfect matchup for VCU. Whereas the Rams were inspired by the critics and playing with nothing to lose, the Hoyas entered the tournament riding a four-game losing streak after losing their point guard, Chris Wright.

Although Wright did play in the contest, the Rams blew out the depleted Hoyas, 74-56. VCU hit 12 threes in the game, which was their season-high. Brandon Rozzell came in off the bench and went 6-10 from beyond the arc.

With two wins, coach Smart and his team had all the confidence necessary to win, while maintaining the attitude that they needed to prove the nation wrong. This is a deadly combination. The Boilermakers of Purdue had no chance in the round of 32, as the Rams went on to win big, 94-76, for their third win in five days.

They hit 12 threes again in their win over Florida State in the Sweet 16, and followed that with 12 more threes in their Elite Eight win over top-seeded Kansas.

Against the Jayhawks, VCU shot just 32 percent from two-point range (9-28), but shot 48 percent from three-point range (12-25). Even Skeen, more of an inside player, went 4-7 from deep and scored 26 points. Meanwhile, Kansas shot season-lows from both two-point range and three-point range in the game.

The Rams were not known for their long-range prowess during the regular season, but the three-point shot proved to be the winning factor throughout the tournament.

VCU will head to Houston next to face the eighth-seeded Butler Bulldogs in the National Semifinal Saturday night. This matchup is the two highest combined seed numbers ever to meet in the Final Four.

Butler is the defending National Runner-up, and is looking to return to the title game. On the other hand, the Rams are looking to continue their improbable run and create their own history.

Whereas the Mason squad of ’06 had to face the nation’s top team at this point, the Florida Gators, the Rams have a more favorable matchup. The Bulldogs are a good team for sure, but VCU has a legitimate shot to take them down, making them one step closer to achieving eternal glory–a National Championship.

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