The eyes of America are focused on the VCU Rams and with good reason. To say that the team from Richmond's run to the final four is shocking is the understatement of the decade. Buzzer beaters are shocking, car chases are shocking, the final frames of The Sopranos were shocking. No, this unprecedented run is a movie being written right before our eyes. Eight years down the road when Jaden Smith is dancing around the sidelines as Shaka Smart, we will remember this historic athletic achievement.
To put things in perspective, VCU finished the regular season as the fourth best team in the CAA conference, finishing behind George Mason, Old Dominion and Hofstra! Most of America couldn't tell you what the CAA is much less who the fourth best basketball team in it is. The Rams finished the year 23-11, a respectable mark. Contrary to the loud protests of most pundits, VCU did deserve to make the tournament. Still, anybody that wasn't floored by this magical run is either a VCU grad or a liar. VCU lost to Georgia State and James Madison this year. Hell, they're not even the most well known mid-major in their city (University of Richmond).
In their five tournament games, VCU has beaten a representative from each of the five major conferences including probably the most talented team in the country (Kansas). This torrid stretch has drawn comparisons to in-state rival George Mason's run to the final four in 2006. Both are small Virginia schools that made ridiculous runs after being seeded 11th in the tournament. That's where the comparisons stop. That George Mason team had been nationally ranked weeks before the tournament. This VCU team had lost six of their last 11 games and there's a legitimate case to be made that they shouldn't have gotten a bid. That George Mason team won four tournament games by 25 combined points. This VCU squad has won five games by a combined 60.
The Kentucky Wildcats haven't been considered a Cinderella team since Harry Truman was President. From Adolph Rupp and Pat Riley to John Calipari and John Wall, the Yankees of college basketball are used to being on top. This year was supposed to be different in Lexington however. All-world Turkish freshman Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible by the NCAA at the start of the year. They have only one senior on their roster, a roly-poly center who was more known by Kentucky fans for wearing jean shorts then his play. Oh yeah, the Wildcats also had five players from last years team go in the first round of the NBA draft including Wall, who went number one overall. From an outside observer, it seemed the Wildcats would be justifiably average this year.
What nobody counted on is the coaching ability of the much-maligned John Calipari. The slick coach is a controversial figure in the basketball world. He's had two final fours at different schools vacated by the NCAA. Many consider him the ultimate snake oil salesman, selling kids a dream of riches until he bolts for a better opportunity. Calipari is as charismatic as they come, one of the few coaches who truly lights up the room when he walks in. He's unquestionably the best recruiter in college sports, putting together video game recruiting classes wherever he goes. And he has arguably done his best coaching job this year.
I caught up with Calipari in Newark this weekend. "Everybody says we can't win with young players," Calipari said (Kentucky starts four freshmen). I'll take talent over experience any day. The Coach who's known for recruiting NBA talent, has turned Josh Harrellson, that chunky center, into a scrappy big man affectionately called "jorts" by the Kentucky faithful. Calipari said after Friday's win over Ohio State, "I'm not sure I've ever been prouder of a young man." Harrellson's improvement combined with the growth of talented freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones has led the Wildcats to the brink of a Championship.
Over six million brackets were filled out on ESPN.com before the start of the tournament. Only two had a final four of VCU, Kentucky, Butler and UConn. The talent in modern College basketball may be down but the excitement of the NCAA tournament is at an all time high. Two Cinderella's left; one, a small commuter school in Virginia, the other, the most prestigious program east of the Mississippi. I could try to make a prediction for what's going to happen this weekend in Houston. Or I can promise that whatever happens, nobody will have seen it coming.
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