HOUSTON -- It started with four, and now it is ending with four. Can you believe VCU has been there every step of the way? Unpredictable. Seemingly impossible. But here the Rams are, having played their way into the 2011 NCAA tournament by surviving the First Four, and then roaring all the way to the Final Four.
A thing like this doesn't just happen. For one thing, it's not been just one game. For VCU, and only for VCU, it required five games to get to the Final Four. That's a first, and it might even be a last. Will we ever see another team be relegated to the First Four because of its relatively unimpressive resume, and then watch as that team wins one game, then another, then another, then two more, to reach the Final Four?
But it happened with VCU, and I'll tell you why it happened, and why it happened relates directly to the Rams' national semifinal Saturday against Butler. For VCU to continue its rampage toward the national championship, the Rams will have to do exactly what they've been doing. But their toughest test of the tournament -- tougher even than what might await Monday -- will be Butler.
Because what VCU has done for five games is impose its will on the opponent.
When they lose: Bulldogs look rough when out of sync Read More >>
When they lose: As streaky Rodriguez goes, so go the Rams Read More >>
However it unfolds, an outsider will play for title Read More >>
And nobody imposes squat on Butler.
Butler is impervious to pressure, impervious to stress, impervious to whatever the other team is trying to do to it. Which means this game won't just be a test of skill. It will be a test of will.
VCU has made its first five opponents give in. Some took longer than others, but all of them eventually caved under the pressure VCU brought to bear. It's pressure on both sides of the ball. The defense swarms for 50 feet, sometimes all 90 feet, and tries to produce a poorly conceived shot. The offense then takes the rebound, or even the ball after a made basket, and pushes the floor and probes quickly for a 3-pointer. This isn't the old Loyola Marymount offense of the 1980s that wanted to score 100 points every time out, but this isn't a patient attack, either. It's an attack, and it's on both sides of the ball, and it continues for 40 minutes.
And lately, VCU's opponents have been cracking.
Southern California, VCU's opponent in the First Four, probably did the best job of the Rams' first five foes. The Trojans held on for a half, keeping the score tied at 22, before the stress of the VCU attack broke them down. The final was 59-46, but the second half was a runaway. Southern California gave in, and VCU was pouring it on when the final horn mercifully sounded.
Georgetown and Purdue pretty much gave in from the beginning. VCU hit shots early, the Hoyas and then the Boilermakers panicked, and it was over. They tried to play VCU's game, and in the last three weeks, nobody's going to beat VCU at its own game. The faster the pace, the more frenetic the style, the better for VCU.
"Our guys like playing fast," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "They love throwing the ball ahead, shooting it or attacking. The great thing is when we play other teams with guys that also like playing that way, but maybe that's not their style of play, sometimes we're able to get those guys seduced into playing that way."
Kansas got seduced like a horny teenager. The Jayhawks succumbed to the VCU pressure, taking the shots the Rams were begging them to take. At the end of the game the numbers were shocking, ugly. Kansas had made just two 3-pointers, but not for lack of trying. The Jayhawks jacked up 21 of them. VCU offered, and Kansas accepted. It's a human failing.
The thing is, Butler may not be human.
Just as VCU mirrors the persona of its coach, Smart -- who spent Friday's practice session diving for loose balls and taking charges against players who outweigh him by 100 pounds -- Butler mirrors coach Brad Stevens. And before he became a coach, Stevens worked for a global pharmaceutical company. The man wears thick-rimmed glasses today. He's cerebral, but not in the flashy way that Shaka Smart is cerebral. Stevens is cerebral like an owl. How do you know he's awake? He blinks. That's all. Even when Stevens does "freak out," in the words of Butler senior Matt Howard, "it's fairly light."
Butler plays with the same stoicism. It's almost spooky how calm Butler plays, even on a stage as frenzied as this one. Last year in the Final Four, playing in its home city against monster Duke, Butler found itself trailing for most of the second half and simply wouldn't go away. The moment didn't crush Butler; Butler very nearly crushed the moment, grinding its way into a one-possession game in the final minute before having a game-winning shot bounce off the backboard.
The moment will come calling on Saturday. VCU will try to use pressure -- the enormity of the game, the frenzy of the defensive style the Rams refer to as "havoc" -- to crack the Bulldogs.
Nobody has cracked the Bulldogs yet.
"Butler is so sound, so mentally tough," Smart said. "They don't make mistakes. They're always in the right position."
Always have been, anyway. Always will be? We'll see Saturday. Butler is a rock, but VCU will drip that water for 40 minutes. And rocks do crack.