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VCU players say "we could win it all" at Final Four this weekend

Banners commemorating each of VCU's nine previous NCAA tournament appearances hang from the Siegel Center. Suffice to say, the 10th will be unique and raised amid much fanfare.

Question is: Will it be a Final Four or, dare we ponder, national championship banner?

"Making it to the NCAA tournament, I thought that was going to be a hard task," Rams forward Jamie Skeen said Tuesday. "I never thought in a million years we could make it this far because of all the talent in America, all the talent at the big-time schools. But as you can see, we've been beating the big-time schools. It's like, wow!"

If you're stunned, Jamie, imagine the rest of us.

VCU defeated Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to reach the Final Four in Houston, where the Rams face Butler in Saturday's first semifinal.

Never had the Rams advanced to the Sweet 16, let alone the Elite Eight or Final Four. Never has any team seeded so low, VCU was No. 11 in the Southwest Regional, won so many tournament games so convincingly — four of the five victories by 10 or more points.

That explains why approximately 6,500 fans, more than attended seven Rams home games this season, flocked to the Sigel Center at 1 a.m. Monday to greet the team upon its return from San Antonio and Sunday's upset of top-seeded Kansas.

That explains why folks waited up to four hours in line Monday for VCU Final Four apparel.

"It's really galvanized thousands behind the black-and-gold," coach Shaka Smart said, referencing the Rams' colors, "and people are going nuts. Everybody wants to go to Houston."

There VCU faces last season's upstart, the modest program that took Duke to the brink in the national championship game.

"That's one of the magical things about what Butler did last year is, they made a lot of teams out there, a lot of coaches out there, believe we can do it," Smart said.

"I think every mid-major was rooting for them," point guard Joey Rodriguez said. "After seeing that, I thought anything is possible."

Still, as recently as a week ago, the notion of VCU winning the national championship seemed preposterous. But then the Rams survived Florida State 72-71 and whipped Kansas 71-61.

As my cabbie said en route to the San Antonio airport Monday, "If it had been a squeaker, you could say it was luck. But they spanked 'em."

And anyone who watched that spanking knows that if VCU continues to shoot and defend as it has these last two weeks, victories over Butler and the Kentucky-Connecticut winner are feasible.

"We feel we've been the most dominant team in the tournament," Rodriguez said. "There's no doubt in my mind we can win it all. It's crazy to say, but when you look back at what we've done …"

"If you reseeded the tournament based on how people played, VCU would be a No. 1 seed," Butler coach Brad Stevens said Monday during a teleconference.

And Smart, 33, would be a rock star. Newspapers, websites and networks are rushing to chronicle his rise from point guard at Division III Kenyon College in Ohio to Final Four coach.

"I can't sing very well," Smart said, "but if they want to make me a rock star because of what Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess and the rest of our team have done, I guess that's the way it works. But it doesn't change me at all."

Smart's uplifting story took a very human turn Tuesday morning when his grandfather died in suburban Chicago after a lengthy illness at age 91. Walter King used to cut out basketball articles from the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times and mail them to his grandson.

"My grandfather meant a great deal," Smart said, pausing at the memory. "He taught me humility, appreciation, taught me how to interact with people. I was raised by my mom, and a lot of times when kids are raised only by a woman, you need a male influence to teach you certain things that only a man can teach you, and he was there for me to do that."

Prior to the Rams' opening tournament game against USC, Smart told them about his grandfather's failing health and indelible impact.

"All he asked was for us to win that game," Rodriguez said. "Now we're trying to win the whole thing for him. That would be special."

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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