The real first day of the NCAA tournament was about the joy of VCU ... and the agony of almost-upsets. My first-hand report on the Rams, plus other stories from Thursday in Bracketland:
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The last thing VCU did at its last practice before leaving for the NCAA tournament, on Tuesday, was gather around a posterboard of a four-team bracket that depicted the Rams winning twice -- over Wichita State and then a yet-to-be-determined opponent, either Indiana or New Mexico State. Seedings were not included on the board, because to VCU, its No. 12 seed is immaterial. At the bottom it read, OUR GOAL: SWEET 16!. Coach Shaka Smart asked each player to sign his name, in black marker over the opening-round area. Each signature, he said, was a pledge: "I'm all in for this goal."
This wasn't the first time VCU players autographed such a board. It was Smart's idea, when the calendar turned to March and they weren't a lock for an at-large NCAA bid, to print one of the CAA tournament bracket. They signed it before beating Northeastern, again before beating George Mason, and once again before ending Drexel's 19-game winning streak and earning a return trip to the NCAAs, where they weren't expected to rekindle the magic that carried them to last season's Final Four.
They lost four key seniors from that 11th-seeded team, and their lone returning starter is senior wing Bradford Burgess. He's considered their "rock," a stabilizing presence on a club overflowing with underclassmen. They look up to Burgess because he has started more consecutive games (145) than any player in Division I history, and because he has a tendency to make clutch shots. He is sometimes referred to as Big Shot Brad.
It was Burgess who, when he learned Smart wasn't going to reprise the signature-board concept for the NCAAs -- the coach had handed out laminated, personal "Sweet 16" brackets to each player instead -- insisted on a change of plans. "Coach, where's the big board?" he asked. "It worked for the CAA tournament, so why not do it again?"
The new board showed up at practice the next day. The Rams took it to Portland's Rose Garden and hung it in their locker room. And on Thursday, VCU was the antidote to the second round's Chalk Madness, by upsetting fifth-seeded Wichita State in a 62-59 thriller. For the second straight year, hoops fans' foremost source of tournament joy is VCU.
This is not, in nearly every way, the VCU team that you fell in love with last season. Not only did the Rams lose 80 percent of that starting lineup, they no longer use "swag" as their locker-room refrain, nor are they working with the same upset formula. Last year's Rams, in Smart's words, "bombed in threes at a ridiculous rate." This year's Rams went just 6-of-23 from long range against the Shockers.
What VCU does now is create havoc on defense. Their team slogan is "Where HAVOC happens," and they led the nation in turnovers-forced percentage by relentlessly applying full-court pressure. It was not so much the turnovers that killed Wichita State, as it committed only 12, but that the Rams made them panic into taking low-quality shots on offense. The Shockers, who weren't exposed to this style while dominating the Missouri Valley Conference, shot just 5-of-16 on threes and 19-of-56 inside the arc. "You've seen the Valley," their coach, Gregg Marshall said. "And no one presses in the Valley."
The Rams aimed to counteract their size disadvantage against Wichita's 7-foot center, Garrett Stutz, by running him ragged -- and they succeeded, as he played just 17 minutes, shot 2-for-11 from the field and didn't make a single trip to the free-throw line. VCU doubled the Shockers' star point guard, Joe Ragland, off of ball-screens to force him to pass, and his production was limited to a palatable 15 points. As a motivational tactic, Smart told the Rams that he was tired of hearing, in the media, that Wichita State was this year's VCU. "We're VCU," he said to the team. "Let's do what we do as VCU, and let them be Wichita State, and let's see which team is better."
That identity battle went down to the final possession. The Shockers, who trailed 46-33 with 13:41 left, finally found a way to breathe against VCU's press, and stormed back to take a two-point lead on a Toure' Murry trey at the 2:03 mark. On the ensuing trip down the floor, VCU sophomore guard Rob Brandenburg drove the lane and spotted Burgess open on the left wing. When you have a Big Shot Brad, you get him the ball with the game on the line, and have a reasonable expectation that he'll deliver. Which is exactly what he did, putting the Rams up 60-59 with 1:29 left, and raising his point total to a team-high 16.
A tired Stutz proceeded to miss an excruciating bunny with 55 seconds left; VCU point guard Darius Theus then split two defenders off a high ball screen and hit a floater over Stutz to extend the lead to three, and the Rams created havoc on the Shockers' final play by switching on multiple screens and forcing Stutz -- who attempted just 31 threes all year -- to take an awkward, step-back trey at the buzzer. It missed, and VCU was on to the Round of 32.
After the game, Theus was sitting in front of his locker, looking at a text from his mother ("Big Shot! I love you!," it read) when Smart walked up to him. "My bad, coach," Theus said, worrying that he might be in for a scolding. He committed two potentially devastating turnovers with 5:49 and 4:49 left, and then got into what he called a brief "disagreement" with Smart on the sideline.
"Hey!" Smart said, indicating the apology was unnecessary. "We together, baby, we together!"
This reassurance put a smile on Theus' face. A mostly ignored prospect out of Norfolk, Va., he was Smart's first signing after he took the VCU job in 2009, and for two years Theus served as the understudy to point guards Eric Maynor and Joey Rodriguez, who each won NCAA tournament games. It took until late this season -- when Theus won the CAA tournament MVP -- for him to truly emerge as a leader. Smart trusted him enough to call his number on the Rams' final possession, where Theus redeemed himself.
Seated next to Theus was freshman reserve Briante Weber, a spidery, steal-creating machine who might take over at the point in couple of seasons. Weber, a fellow Norfolk product, watched VCU's 2011 Cinderella experience from home as a high schooler, and said it was not hard for him to envision replicating that run once he got to campus.
"My imagination," he said, "likes to run wild."
One year later, he's in the middle of actual madness, listening to Smart stand in front of the team and say, "Understand this: We're 40 minutes away from the Sweet 16. Forty minutes, and that's our goal."
The signature board was taped to the wall just past Weber's locker. After knocking off Wichita State, he and every other Ram signed it again, covering the next segment of the bracket. All in for Saturday. All in for Indiana.
The Upset That Wasn't
Colorado saved us from a one-upset Thursday by beating UNLV in the 6-vs.-11 nightcap in Albuquerque. While it was unexpected -- the Buffaloes only made the dance by winning the Pac-10 tournament, and the Rebels were thought of as a South Region sleeper -- it was not seismic, and its ultimate impact should be letting No. 3 Baylor coast into a Sweet 16 meeting with No. 2 Duke in Atlanta. The Bears started slow against South Dakota State, but they're excellent at defeating mid-level teams; it's the marquee games that give them problems.
The day was really about VCU and What Might Have Been in Pittsburgh, where UNC-Asheville was tantalizingly close to becoming the first No. 16 seed to stun a No. 1. It had Fab Melo-less Syracuse on the ropes, trailing early in the second half, and then clinging to just a three-point lead with 38 seconds left. SI's Tim Layden was there to chronicle the cruelest of endings, in which an inbounds pass went off the hands of Brandon Triche and out of bounds, but referees awarded it back to Syracuse, which proceeded to put the game away from the free-throw line. It was the third strange call -- after a missed goaltend and a controversial (but ultimately correct) lane violation -- that went against Asheville -- in the second half. And in that fashion, the streak of wins by No. 1s over No. 16s extended to 109. From Layden:
In defeat, Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach barely held his rage, twice asking -- jokingly, but not entirely -- if he could be given a longer cooling-off period before discussing the game. It is said that March brings energy like no other month, that it brings excitement and joy to a sport that is hidden for much of the season, in a losing battle with its football counterparts in the NFL and NCAA. But it brings pain like no other month, as well. It is a cruel and bloody single elimination tournament and it cares not about the vagaries of the game and the men who officiate it. Syracuse plays on and Asheville goes home.
Two Days With The Beach
Before VCU captivated the nation and commandeered my column, I was embedded with a No. 12 seed that I believed had an equal chance of pulling off an upset: Long Beach State, which won the Big West tournament and played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation. It was one of those cases where you have all the material for an amazing file ... and then the Gods strike you down for trying to anticipate a story. The 49ers lost 75-68 to New Mexico in a game that brought an end to the careers of Beach seniors Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, Eugene Phelps, T.J. Robinson and Edis Dervisevic.
Some of the scenes from Long Beach's preparation for Thursday's game are too good not to share, though. The first is from Wednesday morning at the Doubletree Hotel, where they went through their first scouting session of the Lobos. Head coach Dan Monson, who was last in the dance with Minnesota in 2005, and is famous for getting Gonzaga to the Elite Eight in 1999, had a message for a roster that was making its first appearance in the NCAAs:
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When the 49ers reconvened in the same room at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Monson opted not to show them any more tape of the Lobos. Instead, they sat through a film edit of their biggest moments away from home against tough competition ... and then a replay of the 2011 rendition of One Shining Moment.
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The Beach's pregame scene was alternately loose (their "Get Live" chant in the hallway was impressive hype material) and tense (Monson sat alone in the locker room, in silence). Anderson, who'd been desperately trying to recover from a right knee sprain in time for the tournament, decided at the last minute that he would be able to play. The team doctor wrapped Anderson's knee, and they inserted him into the starting lineup:
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Afterwards, Ware, a captivating scoring guard who carried them into the tournament, sat slumped in the back of his locker, barely able to speak. Shouldering a heavy offensive burden, he had gone 5-of-19 from the field and could not engineer a late comeback. It was not the outcome he -- or I, for that matter -- had imagined.
Even though Monson told the team, "We have nothing to be ashamed of -- nothing," it was little consolation to Ware. That morning, when he watched One Shining Moment, was when the madness really hit him: "It was like, 'Man, we finally made it here. From looking at the expressions on the faces of people who played in the past tournament, you could see what it was all about. And it made you want to go out and play that much harder."