Underdog VCU relishing a George Mason-like run

Underdog VCU relishing a George Mason-like run
March 27, 2011, 3:09 am
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Saturday, March 26th, 2011, 11:10

Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- Calling 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth the new George Mason is the obvious comparison.

Yet the Rams see their reflection in something else entirely.

"It's kind of like the movie 'Dumb and Dumber,'" said VCU coach Shaka Smart on Saturday, setting up a popular line from the gap-toothed doofus played by Jim Carrey. "'So you're saying we've got a chance?'"

One win from the Final Four, who says they don't?

Two weeks after VCU star Bradford Burgess was at Five Guys Burgers and Fries because his team didn't even bother watching the NCAA tournament selection show, the Rams are in Sunday's regional final against Kansas, the biggest underdog run since George Mason in 2006.

Like the Rams, George Mason was an 11th seed. Both schools hail from the unheralded Colonial Athletic Association. And just as George Mason toppled championship favorite Connecticut to reach the Final Four, VCU must now knock out the last No. 1 seed standing.

That's after VCU (27-11) barely made the tournament in the first place. They stunned TV pundits with an invitation to the First Four games, then took down the Pac-10 (USC), the Big East (Georgetown), the Big 10 (Purdue) and the ACC (Florida State) to get this far.

Put another way, that's one more win than even George Mason had at this stage.

"The run they made was great. Hopefully we can do exactly what they did and go even further," VCU forward Jamie Skeen said.

The Rams are just the fifth 11th seed in tournament history to reach the regional finals. Only George Mason and LSU in 1986 survived to the Final Four.

Kansas coach Bill Self said Saturday that VCU has "caught the attention of America." It's unfolded while the Jayhawks (35-2) have barely given America a game worth watching because of their dominance. The average margin of victory in their three wins has been 18 points.

The way the bracket has fallen for Kansas hasn't hurt. Ohio State, Duke and Pittsburgh began the tournament as the other No. 1 seeds; two of them lost to traditional basketball giants in Arizona and Kentucky, and the other was knocked out by defending runner-up Butler.

Kansas hasn't played a team seeded better than No. 9 Illinois, in between beating up on Boston University (16) and Richmond (12). If the Jayhawks beat VCU, they'll tie Michigan State in 2001 for the NCAA record for lowest sum of seeds (48) beaten to reach the Final Four.

The Jayhawks aren't apologizing.

And on the eve of their fourth regional final in seven years under Self, they're fine with ceding the spotlight to the lowest seed left in the tournament.

"I think it's OK for America to root for the Cinderella team or the underdog," Kansas guard Brady Morningstar said. "That's just how the NCAA tournament is."

VCU's run has also introduced the country to its engaging 33-year-old coach. Smart was plainspoken and candid Saturday during a half-hour Q&A with reporters, which ended with him choking up while discussing his ailing grandfather "just trying to enjoy his last days."

He also explained why he symbolically burned a calendar following a dreadful February for the Rams after long toying "with the idea of setting something on fire."

Before the overtime win against Florida State on Friday, Smart said he showed players a tape spliced with TV basketball analysts who predicted they'd lose.

"There are so many guys on TV now that make these picks that it's pretty impressive when you put them all together," Smart said.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said he can relate.

"We used that to our advantage," Larranaga told The Associated Press on Saturday by phone. "The experts were predicting we weren't getting in and then they said we would lose immediately to Michigan State. What we told our players is that the experts never saw us play."

The remarkable run is at least getting VCU fans to Texas to see the Rams play. Two busloads full of students drove from the Richmond, Va., campus to watch the Rams in their first round-of-16 appearance, including a bus that broke down in Nashville, Tenn.

The school also sold out its Alamodome allotment of 1,000 tickets to its own fans. Last weekend in Chicago, VCU had leftovers that were mostly scooped up by Purdue supporters.

Then again, a week ago the Rams still weren't quite yet a George Mason.

"It's fair to compare the two teams," said Burgess, VCU's second-leading scorer. "But we're trying to make a bit of history for ourselves and not just stop at making the Final Four."