Cinderellas usually run out of shoes
SAN ANTONIO – Their rooms at the Crowne Plaza Hotel overlook the restaurants and nightspots of San Antonio’s world famous Riverwalk, where fans of the Richmond Spiders – and the Virginia Commonwealth Rams – have gathered in anticipation of this weekend’s Sweet 16.
Nearly 20,000 people have purchased tickets for Friday’s games at the Alamodome, and millions more will be watching from home.
“This is what they call the big time,” Richmond guard Kevin Anderson said. “It’s what we’ve worked for. We don’t want this to end.”
History suggests that it will.
While underdogs command our attention during the opening rounds of the NCAA tourney, Cinderella’s glass slipper usually shatters during the second weekend.
In the past 20 years, only five teams from non-Big Six conferences have advanced to the Final Four. Butler reached the NCAA title game last season and George Mason lost in the semifinals in 2006. For the most part, though, the “name” schools usually persevere when it matters most.
Two teams will try to reverse that trend when they take the court at Friday’s Southwest Regional. No. 12 seed Richmond plays No. 1 Kansas before No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth takes on No. 10 seed Florida State in the nightcap.
“We’ll try to play as well as we can to justify that we’re here,” Richmond coach Chris Mooney said.
In most ways, the Spiders and Rams – whose campuses are about seven miles apart – already have.
VCU’s resume is even more impressive. One of the last four at-large teams to make the field, the Rams beat an underrated USC team in the “First Four” in Dayton before dismantling Georgetown and Purdue by 18 points apiece in the second and third rounds. VCU is led by coach Shaka Smart who, along with Richmond’s Mooney, is one of the most-talked about names for various coaching vacancies around the country.
“It comes with the territory when you’re able to win games in the NCAA tournament,” Smart said. “It happens every year. It’s almost like a formula. It’s easy to manage because my focus is 100 percent on our team.”
No matter how much they prepare, Richmond and VCU will be hard-pressed to continue their streak of success. A number of factors usually spell doom for schools from non-Big Six conferences in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. Here are a few of them:
• Pressure. The spotlight gets a lot brighter when there are only a handful of teams remaining in the field. Cell phones vibrate with texts from well-wishers and ticket requests from “friends.” A trip to the hotel gift shop turns into an autograph session, and players can’t turn on the TV without seeing their face on the screen and hearing the strengths – and weaknesses – of their game talked about ad nauseum.
“We hear that stuff, too,” Kansas forward Marcus Morris said. “But we deal with it every year. We’re used to it.”
• Respect. Schools such as VCU and Richmond don’t get much of it when the tournament begins, but now that they’re in the Sweet 16, everyone is giving them their due. If the Rams and Spiders win a game this weekend, it won’t be because they “snuck up” on someone. Just ask the Jayhawks, who scoffed at the notion that they’ll have a “cakewalk” through the Southwest Region.
“If our guys think that, then we aren’t very bright at all,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It’s not about seeds. If you look at the seeds - with a No. 1 playing a No. 12 – you’d think we’d be in great shape. But it’s not about seeding. It’s about players. It’s about matchups. We have total respect for Richmond.”
• Talent. Upsetting a team with a handful of future NBA players certainly isn’t unheard of. Doing it four or five times in a two-week span is darn near impossible. And the mid-major teams that do pull it off usually have a lottery pick of their own. Butler was led by Gordon Hayward. Marquette – which was a member of Conference USA when it made the Final Four in 2003 – had Dwyane Wade. Andre Miller helped Utah reach the title game in 1998.
Richmond (Anderson and Justin Harper) and VCU (Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez) have solid players. But none project as high first-round picks.
Still, as many reasons as there are to doubt the Spiders’ and Rams’ chances in San Antonio, Self said there are also factors that could give them an advantage. One of them is that mid-major schools rarely lose players early to the NBA draft.
“Historically,” Self said, “those schools don’t recruit high-major players every year, so the advantages are that they usually coach guys for four years. The guys become accustomed to each other because there isn’t as much turnover.
“[Advancing to the Final Four] at a mid-major isn’t a phenomenal feat. What would be a phenomenal feat is if one of those schools would be in the mix to do it consistently.”
Self’s teams have a history of struggling against schools from non-Big Six conferences, as three of their past five NCAA tournament losses have come against Bucknell, Bradley and Northern Iowa. During Self’s eight-year tenure, the Jayhawks also have lost home games to Oral Roberts, Nevada and – you guessed it – Richmond.
To motivate his team, Mooney showed the Spiders a tape of that 2004 game earlier this week.
“Everyone on the team knows we can win this game,” Anderson said. ‘It seems like the pressure is off of us now. It seems like the pressure is on Kansas. Everyone is counting us out now. They’re like, ‘Richmond got to the Sweet 16. That was a great season for them.’ But that’s not what we’re here for.
“We didn’t work hard to get to the NCAA tournament just to get to the Sweet 16. That’s selling ourselves short. We want to win a national championship.”