On Sunday, Shaka Smart's VCU Rams stunned one-seeded Kansas to become the most unlikely Final Four team in history. And from here on out, we're all Rams fans.
"Ever seen the movie Major League?" Smart, VCU's 33 year-old head coach, asked a reporter yesterday. The reporter had just asked him what he could do to get his team to believe they could win the whole tournament. "I can't say exactly what the guy says," Smart continued, "but they get in some situations, and there's only one thing left to do, win the whole 'blank' thing. And that's all there is left to do."
Yep. That's just about perfect. We're living a sports movie at this point. VCU had no business beating Kansas on Sunday, and really, they had no business beating Purdue the Sunday before that, but they just keep winning. And to really appreciate what makes this run so satisfying, what makes this more than just a crazy winning streak, you have to go back two weeks, when VCU lucked into a tournament berth and touched off a firestorm of scorched-earth criticism. It came from every corner, in the most public way possible.
After watching the NCAA Tournament selection shows, you could be forgiven if you thought VCU was the most incompetent, hapless bunch of college players in the country. God forbid, you watched ESPN, where every six-figure analyst lined up their highlighter to take their best shot at cutting a bunch of college athletes down to size.
Then there was Hubert Davis. "You can make a case for any team being in the NCAA Tournament. ... I can't make a case for VCU." Or Dick Vitale, who compared VCU to a team like Colorado, saying it was like a beauty contest between Roseanne Barr and Scarlett Johansson.
The most poignant lines came from ESPN's Jay Bilas, though. "I'm not saying I don't care how these kids feel, but I don't care how these kids feel. ... We talk about the eye test, [but] this one fails the laugh test."
Who's laughing now, Jay?
Before the tournament began, VCU was ranked 84th in the country by the most respected rankings formula in college basketball (Ken Pomeroy's power rankings), and the New York Times' statistics expert, Nate Silver, had VCU making the final four just twelve times in 10,000 different models. (A 0.12% chance at making history, then.)
So it's not to attack Bilas or Vitale or anyone else that doubted VCU two weeks ago, because there was plenty of evidence on their side, and they're paid to analyze, criticize, and pontificate. But that's one aspect of sports that really isn't much fun.
We all have a million reasons to hate the 24-hour news cycle, but on the scale of obnoxious side-effects, the know-it-all smarm-army it's spawned across cable networks ranks pretty high. So who better than this group of anonymous college basketball players from an obscure destination on the hoops landscape (Richmond) to correct the imbalance?
That's what makes sports so irresistible. That's why Hollywood keeps making sports movies, and we keep loving them. Everywhere else in life, you almost never find absolutes; the know-it-all opinion-makers may as well be spitting facts at you, because in a world of gray, you can't really disprove them. But sports is black-and-white.
You win or you lose. You go to the next round or you go home. You listen to your critics, or you prove them wrong. It's all a bunch of spectacular cliches, but year after year, sports--especially the NCAA Tournament--breathes life into them. You really can do anything you put your mind to, because the only thing to fear is fear itself, luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and it doesn't matter what anyone says about you, it just matters what you do. And f**k Kansas, too.
"I told our team something that I can't necessarily repeat verbatim here," Coach Smart said about a pep talk during a second half run by Kansas. "But it was basically ... forget Kansas. This is all about us and we've got to do what we've got to do. And we did."
Yeah, and they did.
The overrated team that got a gift from the NCAA selection committee has become the best story the tournament's given us in years. And they may not win it all, but unless you're from Connecticut, Indiana, or Kentucky, there's no question who we'll be cheering for the rest of the way.
Now here we are, in the Final Four, and there's only one thing left to for VCU to do.