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Richmond is center of college hoops

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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."

Added Mowbray: "We just mourned. It was like someone died."

Yet just as Richmond got hot, so did the Rams. They reached the CAA final, earned one of the final at-large berths in the tournament and defeated Southern California, Georgetown and Purdue in a five-day span.

Now, there's the possibility of a city rivalry being transported more than 1,000 miles away. Some fans from each school will be able to make the trip. Many more will be back in Richmond watching, a circumstance local establishments will find beneficial as they sell food, drink and school-logoed gear.

Bookstores on both campuses did brisk business Monday, with the eventual arrival of Sweet 16 merchandise certain to drive sales beyond levels seen even during a Christmas rush.

Internet sales, much of it from alums, were especially strong. It created a conundrum for Debbie Matze, the general merchandise buyer at Richmond's on-campus bookstore: How to handle a crush of requests both in person and from online customers.

"It's going to be a battle of what do we put out on the sales floor and trying to get these orders filled," she said.

The demand is there from students as well. Brothers, the Richmond guard, noticed more Spiders logos, sweatshirts and hats when he returned to campus early Sunday. Just as significantly, both schools seem to be rooting for the other to help keep their city on the map.

Perhaps it's because both teams were assured of nothing a few weeks ago. Instead, Richmond is the first city to have a pair of teams playing on the season's penultimate weekend since Los Angeles sent UCLA and Southern California to the round of 16 in 2007.

"We thought the season was over after we lost the championship game, and then you get this second chance and it's like 'Now we have a second chance, don't mess up. Just keep going,'" Ricketts said.

And if the city's dream matchup materializes, Richmond's basketball community would receive an unexpected opportunity few realistically dreamed was ever possible. Richmond must topple top-seeded Kansas, while 11th-seeded VCU must upend 10th-seeded Florida State to make it happen.

But if both teams win?

"It is a rivalry when we play during the season, but I think it's viewed as more than a rivalry if we played them in the Elite Eight because it's viewed as more than just bragging rights," Brothers said. "It's still bragging rights for when you come back home, but it is [bigger]."

As big, it would seem, as anything Richmond has ever seen.

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