NCAA Final Four: VCU Basketball Can Become Greatest Cinderella in Sports History

Matt Ryan@Matlanta1989Correspondent IIMarch 28, 2011

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 27:  Head coach Shaka Smart of the Virginia Commonwealth Rams cuts the net after defeating the Kansas Jayhawks during the southwest regional final of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Alamodome on March 27, 2011 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Over the years the NCAA tournament has had its fair share of Cinderella teams. The anticipation and expectation for unheralded teams to make deep runs in the tournament has become the defining characteristic of March Madness.

However, there are shades of gray when throwing around the underdog label. Not every surprise team is created equal.

In 1994, Boston College made the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed and upset defending national champion North Carolina in the second round. Three years later an Austin Croshere-led Providence squad made an equally impressive run to the Elite Eight and took the eventual champion Arizona Wildcats to overtime.

Both those runs were impressive and busted quite a few brackets at the time, but those "Cinderella runs" failed to have the impact that several non BCS-conference schools have had in recent years.

No. 11 seed George Mason made the Final Four in 2006 after beating established programs such as Michigan State and North Carolina along the way to the regional finals against No. 1 overall seed UConn. Jim Larranaga's team secured its all-time underdog status with an 86-84 upset in overtime to earn a berth in the Final Four.

Not a bad run considering the fact that on Selection Sunday, many analysts felt George Mason didn't deserve to go the tournament.

Brad Stevens and Butler one-upped the Patriots four years later with an appearance in the championship game. They were a Gordon Hayward miracle shot away from becoming the most surprising NCAA champion in decades. A year later they're back in the Final Four looking to win a championship.

Larranaga and Stevens reached unimaginable heights but couldn't quite seal the deal on the biggest stage. However, the runs their teams made will forever be part of the allure and history of March Madness.

Other underdogs in the past have shocked the world and cut down the nets. The championship runs of the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack and 1985 Villanova Wildcats are well documented. NC State won the title as a No. 6 seed with close victories against Ralph Sampson's Virginia Cavaliers and Phi Slama Jama along the way. In 1985, Villanova as a No. 8 seed was the lowest seed ever to win the NCAA championship. Not a bad way to end the first tournament that involved 64 teams.

Twenty-six years later the NCAA tournament expanded once again with four more teams making the field. The tournament now featured seven rounds beginning with the "First Four" (as far as I'm concerned, the NCAA Tournament has six rounds with four play-in games, but the powers that be say otherwise).

VCU was one of the eight teams chosen for the play-in games despite criticism of its selection. Many felt its in-state counterpart Virginia Tech was more deserving of a tournament spot.

VCU's surprise run began with an easy 59-46 victory over USC in the opening round in Dayton, Ohio.

The Big East's lack of success in this year's tournament has been just as surprising as the success tournament teams from the Richmond, Virginia area have had. The Rams contributed to this with a 74-56 rout against Georgetown in the first round. Their victory on St. Patrick's Day was seen by many as a fluke, but they won their matchup against Purdue in the Round of 32 by 18 points (same margin of victory as the Georgetown game).

With victories against teams from the two best conferences during the tournament's first weekend, it's hard to say that VCU received a gift-wrapped matchup against Florida State. After all, this was a No. 10 seed that beat Notre Dame in its previous game by 14 points. VCU continued its magical run with a 72-71 overtime victory against the Seminoles.

The Rams' next opponent was the only remaining No. 1 seed in the tournament, a Kansas team that just destroyed VCU's in-city rival by 20 points. Shaka Smart's team got off to a slow start in the game, quickly falling behind 6-0, but the roles of teams quickly seemed reversed with Kansas down by 14 points at halftime. The Jayhawks made it a competitive affair in the closing minutes of the game but fell victim to the upset bug for a second consecutive year.

Not a bad script so far. Virginia Commonwealth's run to the Final Four is certainly the most surprising run to the Final Four since George Mason in 2006. The Rams are this year's Cinderella team even with an upcoming matchup against a Butler team that squeaked out three wins by three points or less. Their performance in the tournament will be talked about for years to come. In two weeks Shaka Smart has gone from an unknown to the hottest coaching prospect in the nation, and he will be linked to high-profile jobs for the foreseeable future.

So what if their unforeseen championship run continues? The Rams have already made it this far. They're still a Cinderella team, but that label will not rule them out of the championship talk as it did George Mason in 2006. Their close win against Florida State will be criticized in the week heading into the Final Four, but every team going to Houston at this point has survived a nail-biter or two.

Two victories at Reliant Stadium would not only make the 2011 VCU Rams the biggest Cinderella in tournament history, but possibly all-time in any sport. An NCAA championship for the Rams would be a bigger surprise than the one by NC State in 1983 or Villanova in 1985. VCU is a lower seed than both of those teams and does not play in a power conference like the ACC or Big East, unless you think that highly of CAA hoops.

Inevitably, some writer will compare this team to the 1980 US hockey team, but the Kansas Jayhawks were hardly the Soviet Union's hockey team. That comparison could only be justified if VCU managed to win a game against an NBA superteam led by LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Let's just leave them out of the discussion to begin with since nothing will ever again compare to the Miracle on Ice.

A VCU title would be the equivalent of a No. 8 seed with a losing record winning the Larry O'Brien Trophy or the Stanley Cup without any All-Star players. This is something that has never been done in either sport, although No. 8 seeds have made the finals in both the NBA and NHL. The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were two games above .500 and won the World Series, but it seems preposterous to compare Albert Pujols' team to Jamie Skeen's. It's hard to find a championship team from any sport that would compare to a Final Four-winning VCU team.

That's why Shaka Smart and the Rams would stand alone as the greatest underdog in the sports history if they win the 2011 Final Four.


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