SAN ANTONIO | Back on March 13, Virginia Commonwealth University’s basketball team didn’t gather to watch the NCAA tournament selection show.
Instead, Bradford Burgess finished dinner at Five Guys. Ed Nixon stared at the Cartoon Network. Brandon Rozzell did homework. And Jamie Skeen sat down to a $13 meal at Great Wraps. He ignored the cell phone vibrating in his pocket because his hands were covered with barbecue sauce.
After dropping five of its last eight games, including losses to Drexel and James Madison, a tournament berth felt, at best, doubtful.
“I didn’t want our season to be defined by that night,” VCU’s second-year head coach Shaka Smart recalled.
It wasn’t. Instead, there was Sunday afternoon at the Alamodome when Smart hoisted the Southwest Region trophy with the net around his neck.
“Thank you, selection committee,” one VCU supporter screamed during a rare interruption of quiet.
Unlikely only begins to describe VCU’s run to the Final Four, where it faces Butler on Saturday in Houston. From the moment VCU’s name popped up on CBS as a No. 11 seed, its selection was derided, most prominently by ESPN’s Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale. Warts abounded: 11 losses, the 69th-toughest schedule in the country, rebounding woes and defensive problems.
Ken Pomeroy, the basketball statistics whiz, projected a 1.2 percent chance of VCU advancing to the Sweet 16 and 0.0005 percent odds of winning the national championship.
The run opened with the First Four win over Southern California, reeling after its coach, Kevin O’Neill, was involved in an altercation with an Arizona fan the previous week. Georgetown, disjointed for a month after point guard Chris Wright injured his left hand, fell next. Down went Purdue. Florida State fought off VCU until seven seconds remained in overtime Friday, before Joey Rodriguez bounced a pass to Burgess for the game-winning layup.
On Sunday, VCU surged to an 18-point first-half lead against Kansas, the lone No. 1 seed left in the tournament. Behind an arena packed with blue-clad Jayhawk supporters, Kansas cut the lead to two in the second half. It never got closer, as Rodriguez took command of the game with a pair of key assists and a 3-pointer.
“If you could jump in my body you could see how I feel,” Nixon said in the locker room, after the team roared “Happy Birthday” to Rozzell in stanzas that echoed down arena passageways. “This is amazing.”
In five tournament games, VCU is shooting 43.8 percent from beyond the arc. That’s better than its regular season field goal percentage of 43.6 percent. A full 42.9 percent of the team’s scoring has come from 3-pointers versus 33.8 percent during the regular season.
That’s sparked VCU’s offense, which has scored 70 or more points in its last four games. Entering the tournament, it topped that number once in the previous eight contests. At the same time, the pressing defense has tightened up and no opponent has found an answer for the vertically challenged yet relentless Rodriguez at point guard.
Sixty-eight teams started the tournament. VCU isn’t a likely survivor, at least to anyone outside the locker room.