Rams defied all odds in 2011 to make one of the wildest tourney runs ever
As March Madness overtakes headlines and television this month, it’s easy to see why fans can’t get enough of the drama. They can watch basketball nearly 24/7 in the first couple of weeks, many win cash or bragging rights in their bracket pool and everyone has a good time. But if there’s one thing every type of fan truly loves about the NCAA Tournament, it’s a Cinderella story.
One of the best illustrations of this was Virginia Commonwealth’s unexpected run to the Final Four in the 2010-2011 season.
Shaka Smart led VCU through a shaky regular season in his second year of coaching. His scrappy squad wasn’t the most dynamic in college basketball at the time, but what the team lacked in explosiveness, it made up for with experience.
At the forefront was senior forward Jamie Skeen and junior guard Bradford Burgess. Skeen ended the season with a team-leading 611 points, a 15.7 points per game average, and Burgess followed with 571 points, an average of 14.3 ppg.
After a 23-11 season, including a 70-65 loss to Old Dominion in the Colonial Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game, the Rams eked in to the tournament as an 11th seed, playing in the First Four game in Dayton, OH.
Some found VCU’s appearance controversial, believing its underwhelming season unworthy of a NCAA Tournament appearance. Because of all the outside noise, Smart instructed his players to either tone out the naysayers or play to prove them wrong. He wanted his players to play for themselves, not the talking heads.
“The biggest thing was when we got the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament,” Smart told Richmond Magazine. “I really think that everyone in our program was playing with nothing to lose. There was an appreciation level for the opportunity that I’ve never seen before or since—among everybody.”
VCU’s first game in the tournament was against Southern California, which the Rams beat 59-46. A couple days later, VCU stunned Georgetown 74-56, with 26 of those points coming from senior guard Brandon Rozzell.
“Them boys looking at us like ‘We’re about to dominate these guys,’” Skeen told Richmond Magazine. “USC was much bigger than us, but we were way more talented than a lot of those guys. We blew those guys out because they took us lightly.”
A 94-76 win over Purdue in the third round gave VCU its first-ever Sweet 16 appearance. Suddenly, the public was starting to notice that the Rams were catching fire, and perhaps the biggest support of all came from Purdue coach Matt Painter immediately following the game.
“If you watched VCU at a certain time in the season you wouldn’t see what you just watched out there,” Painter said. “Then you watch them during a four- or five-game stretch and you literally think, ‘They can beat any team in the country.’ I made that statement—VCU can beat any team in the country on a neutral court. And I believe that. I was hoping that team wouldn’t show up, but that team from VCU did show up.”
It showed up again the following game against Florida State. Fierce competition sent the game into overtime as neither the Rams nor the Seminoles wanted to to surrender an Elite Eight potential spot. As the clock dwindled to 7.1 seconds, Burgess found the ball in his hands. In what was possibly the easiest shot of the game, Burgess’s lay-in delivered a 72-71 win to advance VCU.
After going 3-5 in February, VCU was 6-1 at this point in March. But the biggest challenge yet was waiting for the Rams in the Elite Eight.
A game against top-seeded Kansas was the reward for defeating FSU. The Jayhawks were not only considered the best in the nation, but they looked the part, too. Towering twin forwards Markieff and Marcus Morris made the scrappy Rams look as if they played in an entirely different league, and yet, VCU was not intimidated. Smart’s players knew no one expected them to win.
“All the pressure was on them,” Burgess told the New York Times after the game. “They were the No. 1 seed, and no one expected us to be here.”
But VCU persevered. After an epic 71-61 upset, black-and-yellow jerseys rushed the court at the final buzzer. The unbelievable underdog story sent VCU to its first-ever Final Four. The Rams became only the third 11 seed in history to accomplish that feat.
VCU’s win against Kansas, the last of the No. 1 seeds, also marked just the third time no No. 1s made the Final Four.
“Once again we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game,” Smart, wearing a clipped net from one of the Alamodome baskets around his neck, told the New York Times. “But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. And we talked before the game about how nobody else really matters.”
Unfortunately, VCU lost 70-62 to Butler, who was on a real Cinderella run of its own, in the semifinal game. But the unimaginable ride to the Final Four will never be forgotten in the city of Richmond.
Years later, VCU’s run is still one of the most fun and memorable treks in college basketball. In many minds, nothing will top it for some time.
As for this year, all fans can do is hope the 2019 tourney will be half as fun as 2011. H&A
All photos courtesy VCU Athletics