- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

RICHMOND | Virginia Commonwealth University sophomores Reid Mowbray and Taylor Ricketts sat in Shafer Court in the middle of campus Monday, as they had so many times throughout the winter.

It was the same place, but different.

Their city is, for this week anyway, a central part of the college basketball universe - and not simply because of VCU’s improbable NCAA tournament run.

Both the Rams and the University of Richmond reached the regional semifinals, transforming Richmond into a de facto Basketball City USA. An additional subplot: Both teams are in the Southwest Regional and will play in San Antonio on Friday. If both win, they’ll meet Sunday with a Final Four berth at stake.

Mowbray is a Ram with Spider connections. His father is a Richmond grad and his mother is a VCU alum.

“Right now, it’s cool, but the way the bracket is we could possibly face Richmond, so that would definitely be intense,” he said while wearing a VCU basketball jersey.

For now, there are few visible signs of basketball mania outside of the schools’ respective campuses, located less than seven miles apart. VCU’s Rams and Richmond’s Spiders are part of an on-court rivalry and have remarkably different campuses - VCU is in an urban setting with striking architecture, while Richmond is a more bucolic campus with a pond as a central feature.

But they share an affinity for basketball and the attention of a proud city this week.

“I think everybody’s really excited because it brings a lot of attention to the city,” said Amy Randolph, the general manager of Barnes & Noble at VCU. “A lot of people just don’t know Richmond that well.”

That’s changing. Richmond (29-7) won the Atlantic 10 tournament March 13 to earn its second straight NCAA berth and ninth ever. After receiving a No. 12 seed, the Spiders upended Vanderbilt and Morehead State to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 1988.

They’ve also done it with local flavor. Justin Harper (the Spiders’ leading scorer) and Darien Brothers are both Richmond natives and starters. At VCU, Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell - the Rams’ No. 2 and No. 3 scorers - are Richmond products.

“There’s a lot of talent out of Richmond that people really don’t know about because they might not get that opportunity,” said Brothers, who was teammates with Burgess at Benedictine High School. “But there’s a lot of hidden talent around here.”

In some ways, this year’s VCU team was hidden, too.

The Rams (26-11), a perennial CAA contender, defeated UCLA early in the season as part of a promising start. But in their final three home games, they fell to Old Dominion, George Mason and James Madison and left fans wondering what happened to their team.

“When we were going to those home games when we lost three or four in a row, we were there and it sucked,” Ricketts said. “We would come here and just eat and be miserable and no one’s talking and just have a bad, bad time.”

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