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“To us, at least, they signified a team that could certainly make a deep run in the tournament and obviously a few years back did,” Smart said. “When our guys beat them convincingly in the league tournament, that demonstrated to them, if we follow the plan, we can do this same thing against anybody.”

And they have, knocking off teams from the Pac-10 (USC), Big East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue) and ACC (Florida State) before taking down No. 1 seed Kansas, a victory few outside of Richmond saw coming.

“He’s brought them together at the right time, and I think the reason is he understands what it takes to run a basketball program,” Purnell said. “He understands the rhythm of the team. He understands you stay with it, keep breaking those rocks. Because you never know which one’s going to break it for you.”

Through it all, Smart has oozed confidence and self-assurance _ no different from the little kid who used to hang around Bavery’s desk or the student Rutkoff trusted so much that he had him housesit during the summers. But Smart isn’t letting the hype change him. When Bavery sent him a congratulatory text after VCU beat Kansas on Sunday, Smart was quick to respond as he always is.

“The thing I think is just amazing is this guy you see on TV and in interviews is the guy he is,” Rutkoff said. “He doesn’t act. There’s no pretense. He’s real. And he always has been. There’s so much honesty and so much integrity and so much decency. He’s just, really, a lovely human being.”


AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Larry Lage in Detroit and Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.