NCAA BK

Time to start believing in VCU

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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SAN ANTONIO

Bradford Burgess stood calmly near center court with four fingers in the air.

As his Virginia Commonwealth teammates danced in a circle near him, his team’s fans bounced wildly in the Alamodome’s stands and VCU coach Shaka Smart pumped his fists above his head, Burgess was resolute amidst a surreal celebration Sunday afternoon.

The junior guard’s 11th-seeded team, one of the last to make this year’s NCAA tournament, was miraculously headed for the first time where his fingers indicated: the Final Four.

After his celebratory pose, Burgess raced into the crowd to revel in VCU’s stunningly dominant 71-61 upset of top-seeded Kansas in the Southwest Regional final with his parents, Keith and Myla Burgess, who waved Final Four T-shirts that had been thrown to them.

And once Burgess got to them, they hugged him like the proud parents they are in what will go down as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament.

“Nobody believed,” Keith Burgess said. “Nobody. We believe. We believed the whole time.”

The rest of college basketball might want to start doing the same because VCU isn’t some cute mid-major team just happy to make the Final Four. Sure, the Rams finished in fourth place in what turned out to be a brutal Colonial Athletic Association and many didn’t think they deserved even to be a play-in team in the NCAA tournament.

But five victories later, this fearless band of overachievers with a genius young coach just might be the scariest team in the Final Four.

“We don’t back down,” VCU freshman guard Rob Brandenburg said.

And that was evident from the moment Kansas’ and VCU’s captains met each other at mid-court before the game. One of Kansas’ intimidating twin forwards, Markieff and Marcus Morris, had a message for diminutive VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez.

“You’ve had a nice run,” VCU forward Jamie Skeen recalled Rodriguez being told, “but it’s about to come to an end.”

For just over the game’s first two minutes, it actually looked that way as the Morris twins dominated VCU inside and Kansas raced to a 6-0 lead. But the Rams were far from fazed.

They simply answered by doing what they do best: pushing the pace offensively, turning up the pressure defensively and oh, yeah, raining 3-pointers.

In the game’s next 14 minutes, VCU made 9 of its 11 three-point attempts to take a jaw-dropping 39-21 lead with 3:53 left in the first half. Four of those shots were made by senior guard Brandon Rozzell, to whom VCU fans sang “Happy Birthday” before the game in honor of his 21st birthday Sunday.

After one of Rozzell’s early 3s, he raised three fingers at the Kansas crowd and then pumped his arm in celebration. Later after another 3 on which Jayhawks guard Brady Morningstar had fruitlessly run at him, Rozzell turned to the VCU crowd, stopped and stared.

When Rozzell’s 3-pointer extended VCU’s lead to 18 points, Kansas coach Bill Self simply dropped his head, walked back to his team’s bench and sat down. It was a good thing, too, because when Marcus Morris tried to answer with a 3-pointer on the other end, he shot an airball.

But that’s what we’ve come to expect from Self’s teams at Kansas when they’re challenged by scrappy mid-major teams in the NCAA tournament. They panic and become the Chokehawks.

Just like they did in NCAA tournament losses to Bucknell in 2005, Bradley in 2006 and Northern Iowa last year.

And when Kansas ran off the court trailing VCU 41-27 at halftime, its players looked to be wondering if this was another one of those nightmares.

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Gone was the trash-talking swagger the Jayhawks showed in a pregame scuffle Friday night with Richmond before pounding the Spiders on the court.

So dire was the situation that a member of the Kansas band prayed at halftime and a female Jayhawks fan cried nearby.

Yet even when Kansas made its inevitable second-half rally to pull within 46-44 with 13:11 left, VCU seized the moment like it has all tournament. During the Jayhawks’ run, Smart was hit with a rare technical for arguing a foul call.

After that, Rodriguez told Smart to calm down and the second-year coach quickly apologized to his team. And instead of faltering down the stretch like Kansas by missing wide-open shots and free throws, VCU never stopped believing in itself.

It leaned on Skeen, the Southwest Regional’s most outstanding player, who scored 7 of his game-high 26 points in a less than four-minute stretch to close out the game like the favorite, not the underdog.

“We did what we’ve been doing the whole tournament — showed a lot of resolve and a lot of belief in each other,” Rodriguez said.

Kansas showed neither in a game so embarrassing for Self that afterwards he wasn’t sure whether he would watch tape of it.

“It’s crushing,” Self said.

During postgame interviews in VCU’s locker room, the motivational video that Smart showed his team before the game was still playing on a white screen. It had clips of numerous television personalities predicting the Rams would lose to the Jayhawks.

VCU also watched similar videos before its previous NCAA tournament games.

“Once again, we felt like nobody really thought we could win,” Smart said. “But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win.”

As Gene Smith, the chairman of this year’s NCAA tournament committee, walked past the VCU locker room on his way out of the Alamodome, he smiled when asked about the Rams.

He and the committee were blasted by many for the inclusion of VCU as an at-large team.

“We didn’t have any doubt,” said Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director, of VCU. “We knew they were good.”

While VCU cut down the net after Sunday’s victory, its athletic director Norwood Teague reminisced about his hiring two years ago of Smart, who had been an assistant at Florida and succeeded the popular Anthony Grant when he left for Alabama.

He had known Smart for several years after meeting him at an annual gathering of the nation’s top assistant coaches.

“I said this guy’s a star,” Teague said.

One who’s forever changed the perception of VCU, a diverse 32,000-student university in Richmond, Va.

“I think we’re becoming known to the nation now,” Teague said. “This was so big for us.”

After cutting down the final cord of the net Sunday afternoon to chants of “Shaka! Shaka! Shaka!” Smart raised it and then pointed to his team. Just before that, he said words to remember during a speech to the crowd.

“One last thing,” Smart said, “we’re not done yet.”

It's about time VCU’s non-believers listen up.

Tagged: Virginia Commonwealth, Kansas, Bradford Burgess, Marcus Morris, Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell

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