One Shining Moment

Steve O Speak

By Guest Blogger Rob Yunich:

Teams outside of college basketball’s power conferences have started to shift the sport’s focus to new places. When Butler nearly won the NCAA title last year, many people said it was a fluke and that it wouldn’t happen again anytime soon.

But when the final four begins on Saturday, not only is Butler back for another shot but they’ll be facing Virginia Commonwealth University — from the same conference that sent George Mason to the final four in 2006. VCU’s journey to Houston has included symbolic wins over teams from the Pac-10 (USC), Big East (Georgetown), Big 10 (Purdue), ACC (Florida State), and Big 12 (Kansas). If this were college football, the Rams would have vanquished nearly every BCS conference except the SEC (which, conveniently, Kentucky will represent in the final four).

VCU and Butler are the epitome of college basketball: putting team before individual. It’s hard to forget the end of Butler’s victory over Florida in the regional final. With about 20 seconds left, Gators guard Erving Walker isolated himself by dribbling the ball in one place for about 15 seconds before attempting to drive to the basket. Bulldogs guard Shelvin Mack cut off his path, so Walker was forced to heave a horrible three-point attempt and the game headed to overtime, where Butler emerged victorious.

That seemed more like an NBA game than a college contest. Where was the motion offense? Where was the play that got the Gators a good shot, and maybe a chance for a rebound, to win the game? Florida Coach Billy Donavan took a page from the pros and the Gators lost to a squad that played team basketball. If you want to see a clinic on boxing out, watch a Butler game. It’s a thing of beauty.

VCU isn’t too shabby, either. Against a bigger Kansas team, they outhustled the mighty Jayhawks and held them to 35.5 percent shooting from the field and a putrid 2-for-21 from beyond the three-point arc. The Rams, mind you, shot 48 percent from three-point range and 39.6 percent from the field. They totally got Kansas off their game and refused to back down from a team that was supposed to cruise to victory.

In fact, before beating Kansas by 10, VCU’s average margin of victory in the tournament was 18 points, including victories over teams seeded third (Purdue) and sixth (Georgetown).

This takes nothing away from Kentucky or Connecticut; both have enjoyed quality seasons in tough conferences. U-Conn. became the first Big East team to win five straight games en route to the conference tournament title and has kept their momentum going in the Big Dance. Kentucky, meanwhile, has gotten stronger as the tournament progressed and impressed in its regional final victory over North Carolina.

But for the 2011 tournament to truly change the course of history, and eclipse the precedent set by George Mason, either Butler or VCU needs to win the championship. They’d become the first true non-power to win the men’s basketball title since UTEP (then called Texas Western) beat Kentucky in 1966 in a game that also carried historical implications for racial reasons. (Some would argue that UNLV’s victory in 1990 should count, too.)

A Rams or Bulldogs title would be a shining example that that you don’t have to be part of a certain conference to have a real shot at the title.

Rob Yunich is creator and blogger of the Caps/Hockey website Storming the Crease.

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