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Another year, another wild opening weekend in the NCAA tournament



The Rams of Virginia Commonwealth University appeared out of nowhere, straight from the far-right edge of the office pool bracket. Damned if we saw them coming.

We could go on about the wonderful wackiness of the NCAA tournament's first weekend, but that is a given. We could ask for a moment of silence for the officiating, which was fatally dreadful in crucial moments. But that's going to happen. The ceremonial bracket-burning took place slightly earlier than usual this year -- thank you very much, Texas -- but that's nothing new. We've been flaming brackets for decades.

Let's just sum up the first weekend by offering some meas and culpas to VCU, superstars of truTV, validators of the First Four and all-around Madness poster-guys.

The Rams persuasively dismantled a very good Purdue club Sunday to earn a Sweet 16 game with Florida State in San Antonio Friday. Afterward, VCU forward Jamie Skeen declared, "Look at us now.''

We are. We can't look away. It's like a wreck on the highway. The Rams could have us rubbernecking from here to Houston.

What's more, Richmond, the Southwest's No. 12 seed, plays top seed Kansas Friday. If the Spiders do the unlikely, we could have an all-Richmond regional final. The capital of the Confederacy and college basketball? Who knew?

A nod to Charlie Daniels, boys: The South's Gonna Do It Again.

"Anybody can beat anybody,'' said the aptly named VCU coach Shaka Smart, 33, whose name is suddenly on the speed-dial of all athletic directors seeking the Hot Young Coach of the Moment.

Smart's right. Four double-digit seeds will play on this week. Butler, an 8 seed, returns. The Big East is suddenly little: Only two of its 11 bids escaped the weekend, though it didn't help that the league cannibalized itself in two games: Marquette beat Syracuse and UConn took out Cincinnati. When four of your teams play each other, casualties are inevitable.

Picking a champion looks to be as easy as picking who's Marcus and who's Markieff. The Morris twins combined for 41 points and 24 rebounds in Kansas' win Sunday over Illinois.

A key to winning when you're not supposed to? Cherish the basketball. VCU beat Purdue when it combined 26 assists with four turnovers. Richmond has nine turnovers in two games. Contrast that with Syracuse, which exited stage early again, partly owing to 18 turnovers

The elephant at half court is Ohio State. The Buckeyes are filing their nails and saying, "N-e-e-xt.'' They merely demolished George Mason Sunday, 98-66, with a thoroughness that makes them seem the best Shining Moment candidate going.

Their main perspirer, coach Thad Matta, barely offered a drip while watching his team go on a ridiculous, 50-15 run in the last 16 minutes of the first half. George Mason wasn't Kansas. But the eighth-seeded Patriots owned a history of slipper-wearing, having reached the Final Four as an 11th seed in '06.

Surviving a No. 8 seed isn't a given. Ask Pitt, which did not survive, and Duke, which blew a 15-point lead in the last 10 minutes, before beating Michigan by two. Ohio State has five players who can score, a load in the middle in Jared Sullinger, and coolness at point guard, where freshman Aaron Craft had 15 assists and two turnovers.

"If they play like this every day, they're a tough out,'' George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "But you don't play like this every day. Every game is different. Every opponent is different. The next round, they're probably going to play a team with a little more size and a better matchup, physicality-wise.''

Physicality speaking, here's a question: When do UConn guard Kemba Walker's legs fall off at the thighs? A grueling Big East regular season was followed by a grueling Big East tournament was followed by 74 grueling minutes in two games over the weekend. The Huskies and Marquette are all that's left of the Big East's 11 tournament invitees.

But, back to lesser-hyped teams that are still around. VCU shot 65.6 percent in the second half and scored 48 points in the paint against a Purdue team known for its defense. The Rams carry the classic boulder on their shoulder into the region.

Clichés are clichés because they're true. Nobody thought VCU would be here now. Certainly not the heathen media, which universally trashed the Rams even getting into the tournament. VCU tiptoed in through the back door, having lost five of its last eight then being shuttled off to Dayton to play in what the NCAA ingloriously termed the First Four.

The Rams weren't playing Broadway. They played on truTV. Until Tuesday, did anyone know what truTV was?

Florida State is in the Sweet 16, even as the Seminoles' best player, Chris Singleton, lasted only 10 minutes against Notre Dame. Singleton broke his foot Feb. 12. Butler is back, thanks to Matt Howard's look-what-I-found putback against Old Dominion, and a head-shaking foul in the last second against Pitt.

By the way, it's nice that the TV can have NCAA supervisor of officials John Adams on for purposes of explanation and clarification. But the guy's not exactly objective when it comes to questionable calls. Over the weekend, egregious followed questionable followed infuriating.

The ref in the Arizona-Texas game couldn't count to five. The guy in the Pitt-Butler game decided he'd decide the outcome himself. Washington lost a crucial second of time in its loss to North Carolina. And so on.

But we digress.

At some point, we want the upsets to stop. The Little Teams That Could are a fine diversion during the first weekend. This week, we really need the big boys to hitch up their pants. Unless, of course, your idea of greatness is Richmond-Butler in a national semifinal.

We don't visit the National Gallery of Art seeking graffiti. No disrespect to VCU and Richmond and Charlie Daniels. But this weekend, we'd prefer the classics: Kansas, Ohio State and Duke. The Southeast will give us the fly in our soup: Butler, Wisconsin, BYU or Florida. We'd prefer it be BYU, because you can't not root for the audacity of someone who calls himself Jimmer. Let's see Fredette go for 40 against the Brothers Morris.

Finally, a spadeful of dirt to the No. 16 seeds, who stunk on toast, as usual. They lost to the No. 1s by an average of 28 points. They're now 0-108 all time. We'd call them Charlie Browns, but that'd be an insult to Charlie Brown.

And the NCAA thought it was necessary to add four teams this year?

Oh, yeah. One of those teams was VCU. Never mind.