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Richmond enjoying unprecedented spotlight thanks to Rams, Spiders

What's the biggest moment in Richmond history?

There are a few contenders. In 1775, a guy named Patrick Henry delivered his "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech at St. John's Church. During the Civil War, the city served for a time as the Confederate Capital.

But in the modern 24/7 world, Richmond has never enjoyed the kind of spotlight it has this week, when Shaka Smart's upstart VCU basketball team and Chris Mooney's Richmond team are preparing to play Sweet 16 games in San Antonio.

"It's kind of like Christmas here in Richmond," said Mayor Dwight Jones.

The city of about 200,000 has as many basketball teams left playing as the vaunted Big East. VCU's athletics Web site spiked from 800,000 hits a day to 2.5 million over the weekend, causing concern it might crash. Shaka Smart and VCU were national trending topics on Twitter. Traffic is up 48 percent on the admissions page of the Richmond website. Players are getting standing ovations in class. Coaches can't order lunch without the other patrons gushing over them.

"The excitement is reaching epic proportions," said Chamber of Commerce president Kim Scheeler. "It's tremendous visibility."

The universities are opposites in many ways. VCU is an urban, downtown state school of more than 23,000 undergraduates. Richmond is a suburban private institution with a little less than 3,000 students.

But they share something in common this week. They have overcome low seedings and national disregard -- especially in the case of VCU, which made the field as a "First Four" team and was widely mocked -- to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Today local leaders will stage a rally in the historic downtown district. Though the teams will already have departed for San Antonio, the university presidents will each make a speech. According to organizer Jack Berry of Venture Richmond, the event will come complete with a banner depicting ESPN pundit and VCU critic Dick Vitale with a plate of crow and the words, "Eat Crow Baby!"

"He gave us such a hard time, we want to lampoon him," Berry said.

When the bracket came out, Vitale said "it makes no logic" that VCU was included. The Rams have since won three games and, thanks to the busted Southwest Bracket, will play No. 10 seed Florida State on Friday night. Earlier in the evening, No. 12 seed Richmond has a more daunting task, taking on the region's top seed, Kansas.

"It's a huge opportunity for us and a huge challenge," said Spiders coach Mooney. "The pending Kansas game really helps us stay focused."

Which means Mooney has been able to shut out some of the ambient noise that surrounds the excitement. Because that's another thing VCU and Richmond have in common: They have two of the hottest young coaches in the game. Neither had completed first-round upsets before Twitter exploded with speculation about their future job prospects and Facebook pages lobbying for their services were established.

On Tuesday, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that VCU athletic director Norwood Teague plans to sit down with 33-year old Smart, saying, "We want to take care of him."

Mooney, 38, was wooed by Boston College last April but returned to Richmond to sign a new contract that runs for six more seasons. The university president told the Times Dispatch, "We'd love for him to stay."

"If there are 100 stories about Shaka taking a job on the Internet, if he doesn't turn on his computer he doesn't see one," Mooney said of Smart, though he could have been talking about himself. "If you're not looking for it, it's not a distraction."

Smart is of the same mind. "One hundred percent of my time and energy is spent on Florida State," he said. "Every year at this time, the talk is about coaching changes and there is always speculation about who's going where. Every ounce of me is devoted to taking this program to new heights."

Both are bright, young motivators. Smart was accepted to Harvard coming out of high school but went to tiny Division III Kenyon College. Smart has used doubts about his team as a way to fuel his players. He showed film over and over of ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi saying VCU players couldn't guard him.

"We love ESPN," Smart said over the weekend. "But let's face it, those guys questioned us a little bit and our credibility as an NCAA team."

Richmond, in turn, was motivated by a seeding that it felt was too low. Guard Kevin Anderson said the team "was blown when we got a 12." Princeton-educated Mooney has kept his team loose, turning them on to old-school bands like Pearl Jam and taking his players out to play touch football after a crushing loss to Temple.

VCU and Richmond are in different leagues, but they play each other every year in the Black and Blue Classic, the biggest nonconference game of the year. (VCU holds the series edge, but Richmond won this season's game 72-60.) Unlike some crosstown rivalries, the teams maintain a friendly relationship. They also have a couple of native sons: Richmond senior Justin Harper and VCU senior Brandon Rozzell are both local products.

"I always knew Richmond basketball was good," Rozzell said.

Now there's a chance the teams could be playing each other in San Antonio.

"It's possible," Berry said. "Anything's possible at this point."

Mooney, who was an English literature major at Princeton -- and who looks like he'd be as comfortable analyzing The Great Gatsby as breaking down Vanderbilt's defense -- wrote his senior thesis on baseball literature.

"And why baseball is such a subject for literature," Mooney said. "It's a breezy spring afternoon. Basketball is a little more intense, a little more quick."

But what's happening in Richmond this week is the stuff of storybooks.