Friday, March 25, 2011

Forget Chicago - Richmond's My Kind of Town

When this 2010-11 season finishes in about the next ten days, I will look back on everything that I witnessed as far as college basketball is concerned.  And when I do, the first thing that will pop into my head is the city of Richmond.   That's because so much of the regular season, the CAA Tournament and now the NCAA Tournament has revolved around the city of Richmond and especially it's two teams, VCU and Richmond.

In November, I went with my friends Mal and Tieff to the 2K Classic at MSG.  You know, the tournament that really wasn't a tournament.  And that night, as we watched two good games (especially the second game between Illinois and Texas), we kept track of a game in New Rochelle.  That game was Richmond vs. Iona.  We knew how good Richmond was from the season before (lost in first round to St Mary's in the NCAA Tournament). So when Iona upset them in overtime, we thought that was a big win for the Gaels.

A few days later, I talked about ODU being "The Ground and Pound of College Basketball".  And one of the things I talked about was that "Significant tests remain before conference season starts.  There are home games with Richmond and Dayton."  And sure enough, ODU defeated Richmond.   The Spiders would gain their revenge on the CAA by defeating VCU at home.

Only a couple of days after that, I was at the Preseason NIT at MSG to watch VCU play Tennessee on Wednesday in the semifinals, then UCLA in the consolation game on Friday.  The Rams played well in both games, barely losing to the Volunteers on Wednesday then beating the Bruins on Friday.  I came away very impressed with the Rams' Jamie Skeen, who became one of my favorite CAA players during the season. Not only did the Rams play well, but their pep band was downright terrific. The pep band even did the national anthem for the championship game that Friday.

Richmond rebounded from their losses to Iona and ODU with a big neutral site win over Purdue (who would end up a #3 seed and of course get roasted by VCU) and over VCU at home.   The Spiders looked to have a good non conference record going into A-10 play despite the losses to ODU and Iona.  You figured they were on track for another NCAA Tournament bid.

VCU split their first two games in conference in the CAA, then proceeded to win seven in a row.  On Thursday January 27, VCU, 8-1 in conference hosted Hofstra, 8-1 in conference at the Siegel Center on ESPNU.  The game was for sole possession of first place in the CAA.  VCU would win that game 82-67, then win their next home game with UNCW 79-70.  Their record at the time was 18-5, 10-1 in conference.  Their reward was a featured Friday night televised Bracketbuster road game vs Wichita State.

As for the Spiders, Richmond finished non conference play with a 11-4 record (they lost to Bucknell another NCAA Tournament team and Georgia Tech). Richmond then started off in A-10 conference play at 5-1 and a 16-5 record overall.  Then on Saturday January 29 as Tieff and I went to a doubleheader (first St Bonaventure vs. Fordham and then Drexel vs. Hofstra), we listened on Sirius to the Xavier-Richmond game, which was for first place in the A-10.   The Musketeers crushed the Spiders on their home court 85-62.  Richmond was now 5-2 in conference.  However, the Spiders would only lose one conference game the rest of the way and would finish third in the regular season A-10 at 13-3 and 24-7 overall.

In fact, I got to see Richmond the next weekend after their loss vs. Xavier when they traveled to Fordham.  The Spiders took out their loss to the Musketeers on the Rams.  As a fan two seats down from me stupidly kept yelling out "Hey Anderson, you're too slow for the NBA", Kevin Anderson put on a clinic.  In the span of six minutes in the first half, Anderson would score twelve points, all on threes and add two assists.  I loved how the Spiders moved the ball around.  I was thoroughly convinced I was watching a NCAA Tournament team.

After their 10-1 conference start and a featured televised BracketBuster game, the Rams were part of the subject talk of #3Bids4CAA.  Perhaps due to this talk, VCU would then struggle.  They would lose three of their next five games in conference, including losses at home to both ODU and George Mason.   They rebounded in typical Rams fashion winning their BracketBuster game at Wichita State 68-67 on two last second free throws by Joey Rodriguez.  The Rams were now 21-8 and 12-4 overall in conference and with the CAA winning four of the five televised Brackebuster games, talk of #3Bids4CAA got even stronger.

Unfortunately for VCU, they couldn't keep the momentum of their win over the Shockers going.  They would lose two games in a row to Drexel and James Madison and finish fourth in the CAA in the regular season at 21-10 and 12-6 in conference.  Due to those two losses, many thought #3Bids4CAA was over and that ODU and George Mason were the only two Colonial teams going to the CAA Tournament.

Then came the CAA Tournament in Richmond.  For the eighth time in nine years, Richmond was the center of my college basketball season.   There is nothing like a college basketball tournament and the CAA Tournament is possibly the best mid major tournament there is (for those of you who are loyal readers, remember, I don't consider the A-10 a mid major conference).  Since 2006 when they expanded to twelve teams, there are ten games in the first three days of the CAA Tournament.  For a college basketball fan, that's like eating Man Vs. Food meal size portions.

And this year's CAA Tournament didn't disappoint, especially the first round.  You had four games where every game the margin of victory was six points or less.  You even had Towson play their hearts out before losing to Drexel.  And of course, you had an upset as William and Mary knocked off the Enigma known as James Madison.  And all top four seeds advanced on Saturday to the semifinals on Sunday.  As always, the CAA Tournament was great, great fun.

Since the Rams finished fourth, they had a first round bye. On Saturday, they faced Drexel in the quarterfinals.  They had split their regular season series with both games being very close.   And sure enough, the Rams and the Dragons had a knockdown drag out brawl that included some questionable officiating.  Drexel rallied late to tie the game, but Jamie Skeen hit a layup at the buzzer to give VCU a 62-60 victory.

On Sunday, in one of the most raucous atmospheres I ever witnessed in my eight years of going to Richmond for the CAA Tournament, VCU took on a George Mason team on a sixteen game winning streak in the first semifinal.  Tieff and I got there an hour before game time and we got to witness the VCU and Mason pep bands going back and forth with terrific songs.  The crowds were both into it and the stage was set.

As for the game, it was nip and tuck for the first ten minutes, with Mason leading 20-18. Then VCU went on a 21-5 run to end the first half up fourteen as the Rams were shooting the lights out.   The Patriots came out in the second half and cut the lead in half.  But VCU would not let Mason get any closer and ran them out of the building with a convincing 79-63 win that ended the Patriots winning streak.

With the talk of #3Bids4CAA at its highest now with the strong possibility of VCU winning the CAA championship, the Rams came out somewhat flat vs. ODU.  The Monarchs had an eighteen point lead before a furious Rams rally cut the lead to one.  But Old Dominion held onto win the CAA Championship 70-65.  ODU was assured a spot in the dance and Mason seemed pretty solid with their regular season conference title and a 16-2 league record.   VCU had to wait till Selection Sunday to see their fate.

Meanwhile Richmond entered the A-10 Tournament really needing to win the conference championship.  They were firmly on the bubble despite their neutral site win over Purdue.   And the Spiders responded with a quarterfinal win over the Rams of Rhode Island, a team they lost to at home during the regular season.  Then in perhaps their biggest game of the season to date, in the semifinals, Richmond knocked off #2 seeded Temple, a team that was a lock for the NCAA Tournament.    Finally, the Spiders left nothing to chance in the A-10 Championship.  Richmond defeated Dayton (who had upset Xavier in the quarterfinals) and grabbed the A-10 automatic bid.

Selection Sunday came.   Despite winning the A-10 conference championship and the wins over Purdue, VCU and Temple, the Selection Committee "rewarded" Richmond with a #12 seed in the Southwest and a first round matchup vs. Vanderbilt.  As for VCU, when UAB was stunningly announced as an at large team in the first play-in game, it seemed the Rams were heading to the NIT.   But when VCU was amazingly announced to play USC, #3Bids4CAA became a reality.

As you all know, there was a lot of derision of the committee's selection by the so called pundits.  The criticism that VCU received was downright awful.   Coach Skaka Smart used that criticism to rally his team.  After UAB laid an egg in their First Four play-in game, the pressure was even more on the Rams to come through.

And did VCU ever come through.  Having been used to USC's style of play from their wars with Drexel, the Rams completely shutdown the Trojans' big men.  VCU had TWENTY ONE more field goal attempts than USC and force fifteen Trojan turnovers.  Skeen had a double double with 16 points and 10 rebounds and the Rams had a convincing 59-46 win over USC.

Then came the first day of the round of 64.  ODU played Butler in a classic rock fight only to lose at the buzzer due to a Matt Howard putback.  And in one of the most entertaining games of an exciting afternoon of college basketball, Richmond went toe to toe with Vanderbilt.   Kevin Anderson, the terrific guard that some Fordham knucklehead fan thought was too slow, put on another clinic against the Commodores as he had 16 of his 25 points in the second half.  Yeah he is too slow.  And Darrius Garrett was a one man block party for the Spiders with five blocks (and should have had more due to bad foul calls).  The result was a Richmond 69-66 win.

On Friday night, after Mason gave the CAA it's second win in the Tournament with rallying to beat Villanova, VCU took center stage against Georgetown.   And with Joey Rodriguez knifing through the Hoyas, the Rams bombed away from three on their Big East counterparts.  #11 seeded VCU completely annihilated Georgetown 74-56 by shooting 12 of 25 from beyond the arc with Brandon Rozzell leading the way with 26 points.  The CAA was 2-0 vs. the Big East on that Friday and the Rams proved they belong.

The second round of the tournament came.  I was in a baseball auction but I kept track of Richmond's win over Morehead State (who of course knocked off Louisville).  The Spiders's Justin Harper, a highly thought of talent by the NBA, had 19 points as Richmond won impressively by seventeen, 65-48.   The Spiders team that had to win the A-10 to get in, now has a 29-7 record on the season.

On Sunday night, my son Matthew and I were firmly glued to our flat screen TV to watch VCU take on #3 seeded Purdue.  And as much as the Rams bombarded the Hoyas with threes, this time they used a more conventional approach in taking down the Boilermakers.  The Rams consistently drove the lane vs Purdue, with either the driver getting the easy layup or dishing to an open man underneath for the easy deuce.  One of the best defensive teams in the country was torched for 58 percent FG shooting by VCU.  Brandon Burgess had 25 points as the Rams scored NINETY FOUR points against the Boilermakers.   VCU made their first ever Sweet Sixteen with an awesome 94-76 beatdown of Purdue. #3Bids4CAA had turned into #4Wins4CAA.

So here you have it on Friday morning. Richmond, Virginia, center of the college basketball universe with two teams playing in the Southwest region and potentially having the chance to play in all Richmond regional final.   Considering that all that has happened this basketball season, especially in a NCAA Tournament where Butler has outlasted Duke, its counterpart from last season's championship game, having the only two D1 teams in the same city in the Sweet 16 is one truly amazing feat.

As much as I love Chicago, based on all that's happened, right now, Richmond's my kind of town.

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