The VCU Rams have made the most of their selection as one of the last teams to make this year’s expanded field of 68 teams, and, in the process, are becoming the greatest Cinderella story in March Madness history.
And there are some distinct parallels to a team very familiar to them.
In 2006, then little-known George Mason shocked the college basketball world with a wild run to the Final Four, defeating perennial powers Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut—and a very good Wichita State team—en route to the Colonial Athletic Association’s first and only appearance at the final weekend of March Madness.
Now, a mere five years later, the Rams have joined them on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Except it took them one more game to do it.
The Rams laid waste to USC, Georgetown and Purdue before felling Florida State in a tense, overtime thriller.
A date with the only remaining one-seed: the Kansas Jayhawks.
Great run, time to go home now, right?
The Rams are playing with more confidence than any team in the tournament, and with yet another barrage of three-point shooting, hung on to beat the Jayhawks 71-61, to join fellow mid-major Butler in the Final Four.
While Butler’s run last year captivated even the casual fan’s imagination, this year’s run by the Bulldogs is even more impressive.
Last year, Butler had won 25 games in a row heading into the championship game. This year, they've returned some of their top players, but struggled during the early part of the season. Their experience helped carry them through three incredibly close games.
The comparisons with GMU don’t end with the fact that they both belong to the CAA.
Both were at-large picks that were questioned by some. George Mason lost to Hofstra in the semi-finals of the league tournament in 2006, the second time the Pride had defeated GMU.
With a similar overall record, they believed that they would be the second team from the CAA going to the big dance, along with tourney winner UNC-Wilmington.
But Mason’s non-conference schedule earned them the nod and a ticket to the ball as an 11-seed.
VCU’s loss in the conference tourney final to Old Dominion seemed to be the eliminator for the Rams, who struggled a bit down the stretch in league play. However, they were one of the last four at-large teams picked, meaning they would play in the inaugural First Four, as, ironically enough, an 11-seed.
Another 11-seed, LSU in 1986, also made the Final Four. However, they played their first two games on their home court, a situation that wouldn’t happen again because of an NCAA tournament rule change.
Anyone who says they saw the Rams’ run coming is lying.
USC? Okay, they were as unpredictable as their coach. Georgetown? Yes, because Chris Wright still had a broken hand, regardless of what anyone was saying.
But a 20-point rout of Purdue? An overtime win against a Florida State team that had just trounced Notre Dame? Kansas?
George Mason’s 2006 run was something special. Butler’s run last season was magical. Butler’s run this season was improbable.
But the Rams have done what no other team has ever done and likely never will do.
Win five games just to get to the Final Four.