Madness-- Two Richmond Schools to battle it out for a final four spot?
March has roared in like a lion for me in New Orleans. Mardi Gras, Irish-Italian parades, St. Patricks Day, and of course the Madness. Hasn't left much room for poker... so today I'll put on my sportswriter's cap.
This year tiny little University of Richmond with a student body of only 2800 or so is one of the last remaining 16. Reward for that? A date with Kansas one of the top two teams in the country. Does Richmond have a shot?
They've played only once before and that was in the Phog (Kansas' home Phog Allen Fieldhouse). Yeah at KU, when KU was good, and in head coach Bill Self's first year--how'd that go? The itsy-bitsy Spiders came into enemy territory, a place where KU had beaten 52 straight unranked opponents, and stole a win with a buzzer beating jumper from the top of the key (Read about it here). Consider the Spiders had to overcome a late deficit and the shot was just one of many baskets they had to make to win it was an epic performance. Right up there with Richmond's victory over mighty Syracuse when Syracuse was a 2 seed and the Spiders were a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament. The first time that ever happend. So, Richmond has faced impossible odds before and prevailed.
Richmond has also won as a 14 seed, a 13 seed, and a 12 seed before. This year they were also, unfairly, given a 12 seed when their talent was more likely rated as a single digit seed. Seems the media recognizes that, as they are giving VCU the coverage as the tournament darling Cinderella (despite being a 11 seed, VCU had to win one extra game--albeit against a team that had no business being in the tournament USC).
VCU is also from Richmond, and the two schools are bitter non conference rivals. If Richmond can pull of the impossible and beat Kansas, and VCU the possible and beat FSU, it would set up the penultimate matchup between two teams and two fanbases that at times despise each other. The rivalry is one that is under the radar nationally but it has all the hallmarks of what makes say Duke-UNC so great.
The schools are only six miles apart, considering Richmond's original campus downtown is all but in VCU's current campus, you could argue they are separated by even less. The student bodies and the schools couldn't be more disimilar. VCU is transforming from a commuter type school to an urban campus. It has a much larger student population and is a rising state school. Probably more NC State than North Carolina but VCU is definitely the big school in this equation.
Richmond is the tiny school with high academic standards and struggles to balance athletics with achievements. Winning a National Championship in football two years ago, shows the school is finding that balance. The Spiders returning to the sweet sixteen only confirms that.
Both these schools have surprising and underrated success in the NCAAs. VCU in the early 80s had a good run, even earning a two seed, but their wins, until this year lacked marquee value. Where upstart Richmond always faced goliaths in the first round and captured scalps that featured players such as Charles Barkley, Steve Alford, Derrick Coleman, and coaches like Bob Knight, Bobby Cremins, and Jim Boeheim VCU usually beat who they were suposed to (with a notable exception being their tremenduous victory over Duke in the first round recently).
CBS may not like it but if both teams can pull of upsets on Friday, the rivalry would get an unprecedented and glamorous stage. These two teams don't like it each other so much the final four spot could almost be an after thought. It might be more sweeter to the fans of each to deny their rivals that spot than winning it for themselves. Of course, as ultimate bragging rights go, that's something neither UNC or Duke can say about the other.
The Richmond double header in the sweet sixteen starts off with KU squarely, in Chris Mooney and the spiders sights Friday night in the Alamo dome. The Spiders will have nothing to lose and have all the great elements of the type of team that can pull of an upset. Great point guard play? Check. Seniors? Four starters. Novel offense? Modified Princeton offense. Novel Defense? Match-up zone. Three point shooters? Out the wazoo including two pivot men that will make the Morris have to guard from outside the lane. Unique matchups? yes...
The point guard Kevin Anderson should give younger Kansas' backcourt fits. He destroyed Purdue earlier in the year and was the difference maker against Vandy. Justin Harper is a likely NBA draft pick and a 6'11 silky smooth jump shooter that can score from inside and outside. Dan Geriot is an old-school big man who will struggle defensively, as anyone would against KU, but whose able passing and shooting stroke will give as good as he gets. Darius Garrett is a pivot man who in one game blocked 14 shots (not a misprint) good for second all time in the NCAAs. He'll be in and out of the game and hopefully confuse the Jayhawks as much as he flumoxed the first two teams in the tournament by changing the look. Athletes Kevin Smith, Francis Cedric-Martel, and Cedric Lindsay will also surprise KU with their talent level.
The spiders have a realistic shot to put only the third loss on Kansas' record this year. Granted KU could grab hold of this game and never let go. They are a one seed for a reason, and have experienced underrating an opponent as recently as last year. The Spiders won't wilt, with single digits turnovers in this tournament already, and the type of backcourt that thrives on pressure (it'd would be a mistake for KU to try and overwhelm UR). If they get hot from deep look out. This team is less George Mason and more Davidson with players that have chances to play in the league next year.
In the next game, VCU also will have it's hands full. Sure FSU on one hand is a 10 seed but the on the other hand it has the best defense in the country awaiting the Rams, who may be the hottest offense in the country. FSU will be a tough task, but considering how easily VCU dispatched Purdue and Georgetwon I'd almost want to make VCU the favorite.
I'll be in San Antonio and while a Kansas victory is likely, I think UR has got a far better shot than the oddsmakers give them credit for. I also think a Black and Blue part II matchup is a far more realistic possibility then most of the country thinks. In that game, I hope VCU, like March, limps out like a lamb and it's the Spiders heading to Houston.
If you are a basketball fan and like to see how it should be played maybe you should head to the Alamo Dome and lend your support to the Spiders and or the Rams. Should be a couple of fun games, and with Kansas threatening to bring 20,000 Rock Chalk Jayhawk fans we'll need all the support we can get.