As the stakes have risen for VCU so too has the competition. This afternoon both have reached a climax.
An unprecedented level of success has already been achieved by the Rams, advancing to the Final Four would simply shatter our conception of the CAA, sending a pair of teams to the final weekend of the season in a five-year span. Of course standing in their way is the team that many consider to be the clear cut favorite to take home a national championship now in light of other one seeds across the bracket landscape meeting an untimely end.
If you've been reading this site over the last few weeks you know VCU. We've studied this team, analysed what makes them tick and dissected how they've managed to get to this point, this stage. This afternoon they'll have to do all of the above and do them well. Kansas will be the single toughest match-up of the season but you already knew that. So with game time not all that far off, let's get some final pre-game reads in the bag before tipping this one off.
Pat Forde of ESPN.com: "The glass. Kansas is a brutally effective rebounding team, with a plus-7.9 advantage on the backboard this season. VCU is a minus-3.6. Friday night might have portended what Sunday has in store. In the blowout of Richmond, the Jayhawks were a plus-eight. The same night, VCU was crushed on the glass by Florida State, 47-32. VCU fully understands how important that area of the game will be. Point guard Joey Rodriguez said that at a Saturday team meeting, some of the Rams' big men were called out by their teammates for a lack of production on the glass against the Seminoles. The Jayhawks also were able to intimidate the Spiders, starting with trash talk the day before the game and escalating it to a pregame shoving match in the tunnel leading to the court. Richmond acted unnerved when the game began and promptly fell behind by 22 points. VCU might be a bit outmanned, but it probably won't be unnerved."
Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star: "VCU Coach Shaka Smart weighed in on Kansas toward the end of his news conference after the Rams defeated Florida State, 72-71 in overtime. "We got here about halftime (of KU's 77-57 victory over Richmond), obviously the margin was huge. I got a chance to watch about six minutes of the second half. It was first chance I had to see them live this year. What stood out most was the size of some of their bodies. They have great size around the basket, even their guards have good size and are extremely aggressive. "Coach Self is a guy I've always admired. He does an unbelievable job of preparing a team, especially when it matters most, in March. "The bottom line is we're going to have to play much better than we did tonight to have a chance to win." Kansas and VCU will be meeting for the first time."
Mike Hueguenin of Yahoo Sports: "VCU - which finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association in the regular season - has been on fire from 3-point range in this tourney (41-of-96, 42.7 percent, compared to 52 field goals from 2-point range), and that must continue because VCU is going to have all sorts of issues dealing with Kansas' size on both ends. The Jayhawks have held foes to just 29.1 percent shooting from 3-point range this season; that's fourth-best in the nation."
Mike Finger of the Houston Chronicle: "Under a bed in Ed Nixon's mother's house in St. Petersburg, Fla., a shoebox holds a symbol of acknowledgment. A letter, typed on Kansas Jayhawks stationery and sent to Nixon when he was in high school, proves the kid who ended up at Virginia Commonwealth once merited attention from college basketball royalty. But it wasn't a scholarship offer. The Jayhawks made him no promises, extended no invitations to the campus. The basic message, as Nixon remembers it, was, "We're Kansas, and we know who you are." Today in the reintroduction at the Alamodome, the Jayhawks get to find out what he's become. Specifically, Nixon and his largely unheralded VCU teammates have emerged as the only obstacle between Kansas and a 14th trip to the Final Four. Depending on which storyline you buy in to, they're also the surprise of the NCAA Tournament, the determined, inspirational runt to Kansas' cold-hearted brute, or, in the words of Jayhawks coach Bill Self, the "team that's kind of caught the attention of America." Even the members of the 11th-seeded Rams who never received a big-name recruiting letter have the full attention of top-seeded Kansas now. And heading into the Southwest Region championship game, the Jayhawks realize they likely won't be the people's choice."
John Branch of the New York Times: "Shaka Smart has lived his basketball life mostly in obscurity, as a player at Division III Kenyon College in Ohio and as an assistant coach at five other universities. But now in his second season as the coach at Virginia Commonwealth, Smart, a slight 33-year-old with a buzz cut and a faint goatee, is the N.C.A.A. tournament's breakout star. Smart has shepherded the Rams into the Round of 8 after many thought the team did not deserve to be part of the 68-team field. V.C.U., seeded 11th in the Southwest Regional, will be a huge underdog - again - when it plays No. 1 Kansas on Sunday. But that does not dampen Smart's enthusiasm. "Make no mistake about it - our guys believe we can win," he said. "I know we can win. And that's what we're going out there to do." Smart has gained notice because of the team's sudden success - he has certainly been added to lists of potential candidates where there are coaching vacancies - but he has endeared himself with his disposition, forthrightness and background."
Steve Wieberg of USA Today: "Virginia Commonwealth's Joey Rodriguez remembers staring into a TV screen five years ago, taking in one of the greatest stories ever told in the NCAA tournament. George Mason was smaller than top-seeded Connecticut in 2006, not nearly as athletic as a team with roster full of NBA prospects and certainly less pedigreed - and it mattered not a whit. The Patriots stunned UConn in overtime and carried an 11th seed into the Final Four. "Different team. Different university," Rodriguez said Saturday. But a template, nonetheless, for him and VCU. They meet Sunday afternoon in the Midwest Regional final, the underdog that finished fourth in its conference - the Colonial, same as George Mason's - and heard nothing but catcalls over its selection to the NCAA field against the one of the sport's blue bloods."
One last thing primer before diving into the game is the size factor. The size advantage for the Jayhawks has been discussed at length since the Rams advanced to the Elite Eight, but once you see it broken down, it's not as drastic as you might think. Yes, the Morris twins are as formidable of a frontcourt duo as can be found and the presence of Thomas Robinson is undoubtedly a solid third wheel, but it isn't as dramatic as some might make it out to be. Below is a visual look at the top nine players on each team in terms of minutes played this season and as you can see, Kansas does in fact have a slight edge, but VCU matches up surprisingly well. That still doesn't change the fact that the Rams will be at a definite disadvantage on the boards.