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VCU sees opportunity in Final Four trip

RICHMOND, VA. (AP) - On a campus where hundreds have lined up daily to buy Final Four T-shirts at $21.98 each, VCU film students Caroline Miller and Tommy Bell were selling glazed doughnuts at $1 a pop while pausing to reflect on their school's improbable run.

"I've never seen this much school spirit," said Miller, standing behind boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, the sticky sweet attraction of their arts fundraiser. "On Sunday, you couldn't even walk outside without cracking a grin for how proud the school is right now."

Building steam, Miller added, "I think the school is going to, like, massively grow _ it's just going to explode."

Bell has been caught up in the Rams' run, too, and shares the widely held view that the basketball team's inspirational performance can only benefit the school.

"VCU's a great school, in my opinion," said the sophomore from Knoxville, Tenn. "If it gets more attention, more people, more tuition, I don't think it can hurt."

From the president's office to City Hall, Virginia Commonwealth University's trip to college basketball's most exclusive gathering is viewed as a huge plus for this urban campus of 32,303 students and the city in which it occupies some prime real estate. It's a great opportunity to highlight the school's academics while dispelling some myths in the process.

"What's happening is there's an enormous level of interest from all kinds of people in VCU right now," school President Michael Rao said Tuesday. "We're really on everyone's screen."

Rao expects VCU's first trip to the Final Four, where it plays Butler for a spot in the championship game, to double the school's annual giving to $80 million in a decade, along with bringing in more research dollars and attracting more students.

He's also intent on setting the record straight: VCU is not a commuter school and it is not an open-access school.

"People will say to me _ and it makes me crazy _ 'What's your average SAT score? Is it up near a thousand yet?' Well, it's well over a thousand," Rao said.

For the record, it's just under 1,100.

"It's not a commuter school anymore," Rao said. "We can't build housing fast enough."

VCU dates its origins to 1838, when it was the medical department of Hampden-Sydney College, and became Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968. It now occupies vast expanses of Richmond at the tip of The Fan, a residential district of stately homes and trendy restaurants.

The campus is a mix of brownstones fitting of Boston's Back Bay and high-rise student housing that could pass for Moscow apartment buildings _ all concrete and metal. The campus also includes the 52.4-acre VCU Medical Center across downtown.

The optimism inspired by the team's trip to Houston is reminiscent of another Virginia school and its 2006 appearance in the Final Four: George Mason. The two are rivals on the court in the Colonial Athletic Association, and jockey annually for the claim as the school with the largest enrollment in the state.

"It was an exhilarating time," George Mason spokesman Daniel Walsch recalled. "It was not like anything we've experienced before."

A study conducted by the school concluded the Final Four appearance resulted in immediate gains. Admissions inquiries increased by 350 percent, alumni became more active and fundraising continues to climb. The study estimated the value of free media exposure at $677 million.

"Student demand has certainly increased dramatically" Walsch said, "to the point where we're bursting at the seams."

At VCU, the bookstore has been a visible barometer of the school's popularity as the Rams upset their way to the Final Four, with a stunning victory over top-seeded Kansas last Sunday the biggest of all. About 600 people lined up after that win for the latest shipment of clothing and memorabilia celebrating the team's historic run.

Amy Randolph, the store general manager, hasn't been able to keep apace of demand as lines have snaked around the building, just down the busy thoroughfare where the Rams play.

"So many have come down on their lunch break," Randolph said. "I've heard so many people say I'm not even a basketball fan but I had to get a Final Four shirt."

Bob Dickerson, a 1990 VCU grad, was sizing up a yellow golf shirt with the VCU logo. He was looking for something to wear to work Friday at Virginia Dominion Power. Its downtown high-rise saluted the team in lights Monday with the words: "VCU GO RAMS!"

"It's incredible, just incredible," he said. "I don't think even Kentucky can stop them."

Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who came from Philadelphia to attend Virginia Union University, said the Rams' success can only be good for his city of approximately 200,000. It was also rooting for the University of Richmond, which made it to the round of 16.

"We're riding the wave and we're really excited about the national attention," Jones said. "People need to know that Richmond is a city on the rise, that we're up and coming. Thirty-three-thousand students can't be wrong."

Jones said he planned on attending the Final Four.

"How can you be the mayor of Hoopstown and not go to Houston?" he asked.

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