Commentary

Kansas could not bully this VCU team

Originally Published: March 27, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- When players from both teams shook hands before the game that broke the bracket once and for all, Kansas big man Marcus Morris went to the intimidation playbook once too often.

"You guys have had a good run," he told Virginia Commonwealth guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell. "But now it's over."

Morris and the Jayhawks had barked, shoved and bullied their way past Richmond here Friday night. Rodriguez warned Saturday that similar tactics in the regional final Sunday wouldn't work with the 11th-seeded Rams.

[+] EnlargeJoey Rodriguez
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJoey Rodriguez fended off any trash talk Kansas had for VCU.

"We're a different set of guys," Rodriguez said.

Yeah, you could say that. A set of guys unlike any we've seen in NCAA tournament history.

The fearless senior point guard, who is a foot shorter than the glowering, hulking Morris, didn't cower. He laughed at the 6-foot-9 Morris. And after shocking the world and shutting the Jayhawks' pie holes 71-61, he and the Rams are still laughing.

All the way to Houston.

From the bubble to Dayton to Chicago to San Antonio to the last stop of the season. From First Four to Final Four. From Who Let Them In to Who Can Knock Them Out. In the course of five NCAA tournament games -- the longest journey any team has ever made to reach the last weekend -- VCU has transformed itself into a national delight and transformed this tournament into a playground of limitless hoop dreams.

"When you have a belief in each other and a belief in your coaching staff," Rodriguez said, "anything like this can happen."

VCU's belief was met with disbelief from so many others. Shaka Smart, the hands-in-his-pockets coaching revelation of March, kept notes. And videotape.

He showed his players motivational clips of everyone who said the Rams should not have gotten a tourney berth. He showed them clips of analysts continually picking VCU to lose. For his final message, he used The First Doubter himself, Barack Obama, showing the team a pregame ESPN clip of the president picking Kansas to win it all.

"Once again we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game," Smart said afterward, with an Alamodome net around neck. "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."

VCU, which stands for Vastly Confident Unit, did its job so shockingly well that it dominated the last No. 1 seed left in the tournament. It marked the Rams' fourth no-doubt-about-it victory in five NCAA games.

The only other No. 11 seeds to ever make the Final Four got there the hard way. LSU won four games by an average of 4.3 points in 1986. VCU's Colonial Athletic Association compadre, George Mason, won four by an average of 6.3 in 2006.

The Rams rolled by an average of 12.

"[The George Mason run] was lightning in a bottle," said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager. "These guys have won all but one game by double digits. It's no fluke."

Shaka Smart
Bob Donnan/US PresswireShaka Smart has played the disrespect card all the way to the Final Four.

In the '06 regional finals, Mason beat No. 1 Connecticut by two in overtime. LSU beat No. 1 Kentucky by two in 1986. The Rams, fourth-place finishers in the CAA, took the final step by treating lordly Kansas as if it were William & Mary.

What VCU did in the first half to the Jayhawks might have been the most astonishing thing I've seen covering college basketball. The huge underdogs punked the unraveling Jayhawks. Woofed in their faces. Embarrassed them.

Even after spotting Kansas the first six points of the game, VCU went on to lead by as many as 18 in the opening half. The Rams made nine 3-pointers in the first half -- three of them by big man Jamie Skeen, who came into the game with four made 3s in the entire tournament. They heated up the Jayhawks with their pressure defense, forcing them into a spree of turnovers (six in the first half alone by Markieff Morris). They played with complete certainty that they belonged on this big stage.

And Kansas played like it has so often in March under Bill Self. The Jayhawks flat gagged in the first 20 minutes.

Change the name from Bucknell to Bradley to Northern Iowa to VCU if you want, but one thing remains the same: Self's KU teams have flopped spectacularly against low-seeded mid-major competition. It's a very good thing for a two-point victory over Davidson and a Mario Chalmers shot against Memphis in 2008, or Self's NCAA record really would be problematic.

"We're crushed," Self said.

Crushed by the burden of being the favorite, apparently. The Jayhawks missed 19 of the 21 3-point shots they attempted. Senior guards Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed combined to go 2-for-16 from the field. They missed 13 of 28 foul shots, including seven of their first nine. Beside the Morris twins and Tyshawn Taylor, no Jayhawk made more than one field goal.

"Probably one of the poorest shooting nights we've had as a team," Reed said.

But the Rams didn't want to hear about Kansas chalking it up to an off night. They wanted to point out how much their defensive style had to do with that. VCU likes to call it "Havoc," and that was an appropriate moniker Sunday.

"That game was all about style of play," Smart said. "We got the style going the way that we wanted it in the first half. And if you watch closely, their players were tugging on their shorts for much of the game. When you don't have your legs, it's hard to make outside shots.

[+] EnlargeJamie Skeen
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJamie Skeen led VCU with 26 points and 10 rebounds.

"That's why we play the way we play. That's part of our havoc style, is getting people winded, getting people fatigued."

In order to play that way, VCU also needs several players to step up. Beyond the heroic 26 points and 10 rebounds from Skeen and 12 first-half points from Rozzell, it was a parade of vital single-digit contributions from the Rams.

Coming into the game, forward Toby Veal had scored three points in VCU's past eight games. Against Kansas he contributed six -- and when the 25 percent foul shooter swished two free throws, smiles erupted on the Rams' bench.

When forward D.J. Haley took the first possession of the second half straight to the rack for a layup and his only points, it was Smart's turn to smile.

And when the smiles disappeared later in the half as Kansas roared back within two points at 46-44, it was a collective effort of will to repel the charge and regain momentum. Skeen scored five points, Veal hit a jump hook and backup point guard Darius Theus blazed to the hoop for a layup in a 9-2 VCU response.

Then it was up to Rodriguez and Bradford Burgess to be the closers. Rodriguez had taken a terrible shot -- an air ball 3 with 26 seconds on the shot clock -- that helped Kansas creep close one more time at 57-52. But that's when Rodriguez rose up and nailed a 3, and moments later drove and slung the ball back to Burgess at the top of the key for an open 3. When Burgess added a layup off another Rodriguez feed, VCU had an eight-point lead with less than two minutes to play.

They had done it. They had pulled off one of the great upsets in NCAA history.

As the final seconds dwindled, Burgess' father, Keith, stood and screamed in the Alamodome front row.

"Nobody!" Keith Burgess yelled. "Nobody believed this? Nobody!"

Nobody but a collection of modest recruits and their 33-year-old, second-year head coach. When given the microphone after cutting down the nets, Smart thanked the delirious VCU fans and added one more bold statement, which you can doubt at your own peril:

"We're not done yet."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.