Sunday, March 27, 2011

Kansas' Date With VCU Embodied the Greatest Cinderella Tale


So this was the year when Cinderellas were born, when abnormal events ruined brackets and turned a compelling tournament upside down and when the suspense elevated obscurity in a mystified sports event that hijacked our consciousness in March.

Believed to be the largest upset in recent memory, if not in tournament history, the Kansas Jayhawks were victimized in consecutive seasons and painfully sustained a heartbreaker against VCU, the darlings no one ever imagined even advancing past the first round, let alone earning a berth in the Final Four. It's fair to suggest, in what has been the craziest and the most erratic tournament in ages, that nobody in our nation picked the eleven-seeded Rams for the Final Four.

For the Jayhawks, favored to raise another championship banner and celebrate with happiness, this was a great challenge for the No. 1 seed, unexpectedly blowing a chance to revive its history and return to prominence among elite programs in America. This time, for a region of much uncertainty and volatility, the Jayhawks encountered a match with VCU, a fascinating date with Cinderella in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. The cutest program in the nation stunned Kansas, regardless of being one of the last teams invited into the field of 68 teams.

The darlings ousted the Jayhawks, surprisingly in the national landscape and have perennial talent, depth and heart to defy the logic and rationalize a sense in survival to withstand the odds of aspiration. But in the meantime, our hearts believe VCU is not a pipe dream--winners from the Colonial Athletic Association who reminds us of the insanity in the month of March, when we witness breathless scenes, underdogs and competitors wearing the glass slipper to oddly fool us all.

The oddity in college hoops centers Virginia Commonwealth, a group with much parity and determination that shocked the entire world by trouncing a No. 1 seed in a 71-61 victory against Kansas. Here's where the NCAA selection committee deserves its praise, even though the vast majority slammed the overseers for clearly choosing the Rams in as an at-large First Four entry and then heard the derision and widespread criticism.

But clearly, this wasn't such an awful choice in how the committee underscores the program's eligibility, such as the way VCU made the panel seem wiser while they made the critics seem like fools. Because the Rams probably won't ever again enjoy the pleasure of playing in the Final Four, it does make sense for VCU to take advantage and attempt to hoist its first ever title in school history, another way to represent the smaller conferences with very little adoration, if any.

It is decisive to Kansas' self-absorbed psyche, known for competent odysseys in the tournament and capturing titles, that the university regains its easiest way back into the Final Four picture. Aside from it all, the Rams won it respectively and enjoyed the pleasure in annihilating brackets across the nation. When it ended, Shaka Smart, the motivated coach, jumped wildly in disbelief after he encouraged his players to believe and not be intimidated by the power-conference teams, a strong message that might've led to VCU's successive conquest.

When it ended, the Rams attained national testimony, no longer identified as a fluke. The underdogs, in afterthought, were never a fluke and bullied the Jayhawks that conveyed a statement to the doubters and non-believers across the country. It figures that VCU, now the most wonderful tale in college basketball, is so bittersweet in part of a magnificent upset for the ages, an extraordinary story we relish in collegiate sports. When it ended, though, tears dropped from the watery-eyes of feverish Jayhawks fans, tears dripped gradually from the faces of Kansas' big man Marcus Morris and his twin brother Markieff Morris.

The sight to behold, despite the happiest celebration near the VCU bench, was the Kansas supporters, numbed and saddened in the stands weeping into tears over the wrath of another hurtful letdown. For the record, VCU shockingly emerged as the second No. 11 seed to ever make the Final Four with difficult obstacles. The last team to accomplish such a historic feat was LSU, winning four games by an average of 4.3 points in 1986.

It seems weird, of all teams, that VCU beat Kansas by 10 points to prevail in what clearly was the greatest challenge for inexperience, raw and unknown program out of the Colonial Athletic Association. It just so happens, particularly when it involves the Rams, that the Final Four is an unpredictable event staggering by anybody in their right state of mind. Welcome to the Final Four, a contest of craziness, weirdness and enigma, as we can utter, "Houston, WE HAVE A PROBLEM, well, only for those awry bracketologist and fans with destroyed brackets.

Seen from this tournament alone, if something boosted the energy level and perturbed VCU, it clearly was Jay Bilas' harsh evaluation that VCU never belonged in the competition or had a right over Colorado. It's a good thing, for obvious reasons, that his words as an analyst propelled the Rams to dominate and manage faith, during one of the hottest pursuits done by any team in March. The Rams advanced to Houston by exceptionally beating teams from five major conferences by an average of 12 points.

That's unbelievable.

It wasn't always this beautiful for VCU, from the bubble to the First Four to the Final Four, finally finding their swaggering when it counted to stand as the "One Shinning Moment" in college hoops, an exhilarated tale that forges an inerasable Cinderella story. What matters now, delivering largely for a small university that has never experienced so much triumph, is that VCU is en route to Houston.

"When you have belief in each other and a belief in your coaching staff," Joey Rodriguez said, a 5-foot-10 point guard whose astonishing performance bolstered VCU.

This was no surprise to VCU, an optimistic group of players with the heart and guts to shock the world, courtesy of Smart's philosophy to emphasize that his players were disrespected and lambasted across the country. Inside the locker room, filled with energy and a fiery attitude, he instills the significance of survival and being the underdogs or underestimated by showing motivational videos, an exercise for shunning off the negativity and disregards. The big-screen television, along with the videos, has fueled VCU to attack and perform with much heart, poise and diligence over the course of the tournament, hungry to win the greatest prize in school history and elevate its grandeur as a prominent university in collegiate hoops.

"Once again we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game," Smart said in the postgame news conference. "But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. And we talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think."


The more surprising scene, evidently on a shocking, mind-blowing afternoon at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, happened when VCU led in a jaw-dropping blowout and drove to an 18-point lead. It is no wonder Kansas' momentum crashed in the first half, with the Jayhawks rallying to within two points at 46-44 midway in the second half. Even after Kansas rallied and brought an interesting turnaround in the second half, ultimately it wasn't enough to beat the sleepers as a dream all of the sudden turned into reality and a nightmare cast a dreaded scare on the unraveling Jayhawks, beaten and tormented by the underdogs. The Rams, a program that finished fourth place in the CAA, epitomized a vintage defeat. What's next?? The Kansas natives Dorothy and Toby get lost on the Yellow Brick Road?? The Sunflower State becomes the Sabotaged State??

All I know is that VCU believed strongly.

"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."

When it ended, Kansas felt the agony and reflected back on a poor shooting night in which the Jayhawks strangely missed 19 of the 21 three-point attempts. When it ended so emotionally for VCU, the players jived on the court and celebrated in delight by racing near the VCU supporters in the section and were braced for fulfilling the folks with much joviality. Smart, a 33-year old head coach, cut down the nets and thanked the ecstatic VCU fans over the microphone.

His reliable guard, particularly in the previous games, Rodriguez, struggled in a shooting drought but nailed the biggest shot of his lifetime late in the half. With 4:58 left, after Kansas roared back and eased within 57-52, he knocked down a crucial three-pointer to extend the lead to 60-52, clearly emerging as the star of the game.

And ultimately, seen driving the lane with the shot clock winding down, he softly lobbed it near the rim for Bradford Burgess to finish the alley-oop for a 65-57 lead with 1:54 left. What worked, more than ever, was VCU's capacity to play harder, smarter with more composure. As the Morris twins sat in the locker room dumbfounded and disheartened, in an isolated part of the room speechless while dripping into tears, Brady Morningstar had angrily wore a disappointing facial expression on his face and, even though he was stronger than the rest of his teammates, Tyrel Reed was somber after the loss. They certainly didn't have the greatest game, as both Morningstar and Reed combined on 2-for-16 shooting.

Together, by the time it was over, they missed 13 of 28 free throws, including seven of their first nine. More importantly than anything else, it wasn't Kansas typical game plan, nor was it smartness or creativity, but clumsiness and ill-advised shot attempts. It was essentially embarrassing, one of the poorest shooting displays from one of the ideal shooting teams in the nation, ousted by the sudden toughness of VCU, a confident school after defeating Southern California, Purdue, Georgetown, Florida State and then Kansas.

For Jamie Skeen, it was a dream come true and he came through huge for the Rams. He measured his shot timely, faked a shot, fired unstoppably on an array of shot attempts as he felt a hot streak and hit three long range shots from beyond the arch. The components to VCU's hottest streak was clearly from the nine three-pointers in the first half, enough damage that pressured the Jayhawks mentally and physically. After all, there's no joke or flukes when VCU forced an orgy of turnovers, including six by Markieff Morris in the first half.

And it turns out that VCU belongs in the national spotlight by playing with much poise and confidence to upset Kansas on the brightest platform. In essence the Rams certainly belong in the Final Four. But the reality of Kansas has played soft and fearful under Bill Self, a well-respected name who has been unsuccessful in winning the meaningful games, losing to smaller and irrelevant programs.

Among them, Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU, a number of miss opportunities in recent memory. As expected, Self's Jayhawks faltered greatly, even though he has watched Kansas flub unbelievably against low-seeded competitors and almost were eliminated by Davidson a few years ago, but barely outlasted them in a two-point victory with the reinforcements of Mario Chalmers in the tourney.

Aside from it all, the Rams pulled off one of the nicest upsets in NCAA history. But as Mr. Smart said, "We're not done yet."

No, they are not done yet, but in the meantime, this is one special story. Perhaps, it's too special to implode.