By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
SAN ANTONIO –
"The tournament is cruel."
Those four words were spoken by a coach with four national championships, a coach with more NCAA Tournament victories than anyone. For Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the tournament has been more kind than cruel. But that didn’t make the season-ending loss to Arizona Thursday night any more palatable.
At least the defending national champions were saved the gut punch of a loss in the regional final. The Elite Eight is one step from the Final Four. Hence, a loss in an Elite Eight game is perhaps the cruelest of all. Reaching the Final Four, after all, is a memory maker. Losing the game before the Final Four is something to forget.
That brings us to what faces Kansas and VCU. They will meet in the Southwest Regional final at 1:20 p.m. Sunday in the Alamodome.
Around 4 p.m., one team will be cutting down nets, wearing "NCAA Southwest Regional Champion" hats and t-shirts while thinking ahead to a Final Four trip to Houston’s Reliant Stadium. The other will be sitting in a quiet locker room and pondering a once-in-a-lifetime chance that brushed past like a stranger in a crowd.
The 35-2 Jayhawks, Big 12 Conference regular-season and tournament champions, have played up to expectations in reaching the regional final but a loss would be a devastating disappointment. Kansas is the last No. 1 seed still playing and their path to the Final Four is historically easy.
"There’s no pressure on us at all," said VCU junior Bradford Burgess, who is averaging 17.5 points in the NCAA Tournament. "All the pressure is on Kansas. They’re supposed to win the national championship, they’ve got the easiest road to the Final Four."
The Jayhawks disagree with the pressure theory.
"The pressure is on both teams and there’s pressure on any team playing this time of the season," Kansas senior guard Tyrel Reed said. "Every team’s ultimate goal is to win the national championship. I think we’ve gotten looser and looser with each game."
Kansas coach Bill Self is 1-4 in Elite Eight games – 0-1 at Tulsa, 0-1 at Illinois and 1-2 with the Jayhawks. The only regional championship victory came in 2008 when KU survived an upset bid by 10th-seeded Davidson, 59-57.
"I started out 0-4 in the Elite Eight and it’s a devastating place to lose," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "It’s marketed as the Road to the Final Four. The way it’s set up, that’s the goal to get there. You win a (regional) championship to get there (Final Four) and then you try to win another one when you get there."
The 11th-seeded Rams (27-11) were one of the last of 37 at-large teams selected. They started out in the newly minted First Four and are trying to reach the Final Four. Since 1951, four NCAA Tournament victories either earned a team a national championship or a trip to the Final Four. All four victories has gotten VCU is to the Southwest Regional final.
"Nobody has ever done it, so it’s another chance for us to make history," VCU senior point guard Joey Rodriguez said. "That first USC game feels like a long time ago. I actually think that game kind of helped us. We guarded really well that game and it kind of spring boarded how we’ve been guarding since then."
Each team’s motivational engine is running on different fuels.
Kansas believes it is the best team that everybody has heard about. After last season’s second-round flop as the overall No. 1 seed, the Jayhawks have thrived despite having to replace three starters. KU avenged its first loss (at home to Texas) and used its second loss (at Kansas State) as a late-season wakeup call.
But 35 victories is just a number unless the Jayhawks can win three more and capture the school’s fourth national championship and second in four years.
"Seeds don't really matter at this point," said KU junior point guard Tyshawn Taylor, repeating Self’s March Madness mantra. "It's just basically how you match-up and how you prepare for the team. And I think tomorrow we'll be well-prepared."
The Sweet 16 is typically where double-digit seeds come to lose. VCU is just the fifth No. 11 to reach a regional final. Two of the previous four won, so don’t discount the Rams’ chances in a 40-minute pressure cooker.
VCU is a member of the Colonial Athletic Association and is following an eerily similar path first blazed by another CAA member.
In 2006, No. 11 seed George Mason bracket-busted its way to the Final Four. In the regional final, the Patriots beat No. 1 seed Connecticut – the team favored to win the national title – in overtime.
George Mason participated in the last Final Four that didn’t have a No. 1 seed and lost to eventual champion Florida in the semifinals. A VCU victory would assure this year’s Final Four has no top seeds.
"I remember watching them," VCU’s Rodriguez said of George Mason’s NCAA run. I remember the Connecticut game, also. It's cool they're from the same conference. You can look at it for inspiration, too.
"It's a different team. We're doing it a different way. Different team, different university."
The tournament can be cruel. It can also be ironic, whimsical, dramatic, controversial, inspiring. Pick your adjective. For Kansas and VCU, it’s all about one noun.
Southwest Regional final
No. 1 Kansas (35-2) vs. No. 11 VCU (27-11)
1:20 p.m. Sunday, San Antonio, CBS.
How they got here:
Kansas is the Big 12 Conference’s automatic qualifier. The Jayhawks defeated No. 16 Boston University 72-53, No. 9 seed Illinois 73-59 and No. 12 Richmond, 77-57. Virginia Commonwealth is a member of the Colonial Athletic Association and was an at-large selection. The Rams defeated No. 5 seed Vanderbilt 69-66, No. 13 seed Morehead State 65-48 and No. 10 Florida State 72-71 (OT).
Scouting the Rams:
VCU has been impressive in its four NCAA Tournament victories, beating teams from the Pacific-10 (USC), Big East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue) and Atlantic Coast (Florida State) conferences. Jamie Skeen, a 6-9 senior who transferred from Wake Forest, leads the Rams in scoring (15.1 per game) and rebounding (7.3). Bradford Burgess, a 6-6 junior, averages 14.4 per game but is averaging 17.5 per game in the NCAAs while making 57.9 percent on his 3-pointers. VCU struggles on the boards. Its frenetic style on offense and defense reminds some of Missouri.
Scouting the Jayhawks:
Kansas has played like a No. 1 seed. In their three NCAA Tournament victories, the Jayhawks have outscored their opponents by an average of 74-56. Kansas’ shooting touch has remained constant; KU is shooting 50 percent from the field and is 22-of-51 on 3-pointers (43.1 percent). After making 68 percent of its free throws during the season, Kansas is shooting 73.7 percent from the line in the NCAAs. Senior guard Brady Morningstar, who averaged just 7.3 points during the season, is the Jayhawks’ third-leading scorer in the NCAAs at 12 points per game.
VCU fun fact:
The Rams have 54 victories in coach Shaka Smart’s first two seasons. That’s the best coaching start in school history, bettering the 52 VCU won in 2006-08 under Anthony Grant, now the coach at Alabama.
Kansas fun fact:
The Jayhawks have advanced to the Elite Eight for the 20th time in school history. Kansas has a 13-6 record in regional finals. A victory would produce the school’s 14th Final Four appearance, the fourth-most in NCAA history.
The winner of this game will advance to the Final Four in Houston and will face No. 8 seed Butler, which won the Southeast Regional Saturday with a 74-71 overtime victory over No. 2 seed Florida.