by Paul Knepper
Basketball fans generally embrace Cinderella stories in the Big Dance. George Mason became the darling of the 2006 tourney, when they shocked the nation by advancing to the Final Four. Last year’s bracketbuster Butler captured the hearts of fans during their magical run, which fell a few inches short of a championship.
Oddly, this year’s Cinderella VCU hasn’t conjured up the same emotion. The dark horse Rams are an 11 seed and had to beat USC in a play-in game just to get into the tournament. Then they won their next four games, culminating in a stunning upset of #1 seeded Kansas on Sunday, which landed them in the Final Four.
Second year coach Shaka Smart built the team around defensive ball pressure and ball movement. Ignited by their scrappy, diminutive point guard Joey Rodriguez, they play with an intensity that is all too uncommon in today’s collegiate game. They have a legitimate inside-outside threat in forward Jamie Skeen and Smart has instilled the confidence in his team that they can beat anybody.
One would think that basketball fans and reporters would be climbing over one another to jump on the Rams bandwagon, but since their victory over Kansas all I’ve heard is negativity and cynicism about their success. It seems as if most fans are annoyed that VCU is in the Final Four, for any number of reasons.
America likes to root for David against Goliath, but in this case the Rams are playing another David in long shot Butler, take two. The drama and intrigue surrounding an underdog requires a nemesis in the form of a national powerhouse like Duke or Ohio State. VCU already beat their Goliath in Kansas. Two David’s clashing doesn’t carry much sizzle.
Many members of the media have speculated that VCU’s presence in the Final Four will lead to low TV ratings and merchandise sales. According to Darren Rovell of CNBC, since this past weekend’s games the average price for a three-game ticket strip on StubHub for the two Final Four games and Final game has dropped from $748 to $631.
There’s also a chorus of voices arguing that the Rams didn’t deserve to be in the tournament in the first place. They point to their underwhelming 23-11 record in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and that they lost five of their last eight games prior to the tournament. ESPN “bracketelogists” were stunned when the Rams were selected to participate in the tournament and some analysts like Jay Bilas were outraged by the decision. Shaka Smart was surprised himself. His team didn’t even watch the selection show because he didn’t want the disappointment of not being selected to be the defining moment of their 23 win season.
There are also fans and analysts who are rooting against VCU because they opposed the addition of eight teams and four play-in games to the tournament. They believe that the tourney was perfect with 64 teams and fear that VCU’s success as a play-in team will propel the push to expand the tournament to 96 or even 128 teams.
Several members of the media have sought to minimize the Rams accomplishments on the court during this stellar Final Four run. Certain analysts contend that VCU’s success is evidence that the quality of play in college basketball has deteriorated. Others argue that reaching the Final Four this year wasn’t that impressive because there weren’t any great teams in the tournament.
The most blatant disrespect thrown VCU’s way has been attacks on the quality of the competition they’ve faced. Many people believe that their first round opponent USC didn’t deserve to be in the play-in game. Georgetown, who they met in the second round, had been in a free-fall since losing their best player Chris Wright to injury.
The Purdue team they defeated in the third round was also playing without their star Robbie Hummel, though critics failed to mention that the Boilermakers played well enough to earn a #3 seed and were still one of the best defensive teams in the country without him. Plus, VCU didn’t just beat Purdue, they trounced them. The Rams then “squeaked by” a mediocre Florida State team in the fourth round to advance to the Elite Eight.
Even after beating Kansas, the #2 overall seed in the tournament, the Rams received minimal credit. Postgame analysis focused on why Kansas lost, not how VCU won. Rather than discussing the Rams sensational three-point shooting, analysts zeroed in on Kansas’ inability to make shots and their lack of rhythm offensively, as if VCU’s pressure defense had nothing to do with it.
Soon after VCU’s victory over Kansas, Las Vegas released the odds for each of the four remaining teams to win the tournament. Not surprisingly, VCU’s are by far the highest, at 13-2. If I were a betting man I’d jump all over that. You know the Rams are going to bring it on the defensive end, they’re not turning the ball over and if they remain hot from behind the arc, where they’re shooting 44% for the tournament, they’ll be very difficult to beat.
The funny thing is, Shaka Smart loves every one of these disparaging remarks about his team. It’s fuel for them. Smart’s been playing the underdog card all tournament. Now with people rooting against VCU, they’re not just an underdog, it’s them against the world. In yesterday’s press conference Smart summed up VCU’s situation by quoting another underdog, Jake Taylor, from the movie Major League:
“There’s only one thing left to do. Win the whole f-ing thing!”