published Monday, March 21st, 2011

Wiedmer: Is Richmond new hotbed of college basketball?

COLUMN

Who knew Richmond, Va., was the new capital of college basketball?

Yes, those Tobacco Roadies Duke and North Carolina both have secured spots in this week’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16. The Cheese State has both the Wisconsin Badgers and Marquette still playing. Even the Sunshine State — which usually has nothing in sports to talk about except spring training and spring practice this time of year — has both Florida and Florida State on the board.

But only one city in this country has two teams still alive, and that’s Richmond — its Richmond Spiders and Virginia Commonwealth Rams both advancing to the second week of March Madness. And the Rams are the only team in the field to have three wins, since they came out of the play-in round to shock Georgetown on Friday before pummeling Purdue 94-76 on Sunday evening.

Next thing you know, Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue is going to have to add a statue of VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez (10 assists against the Boilermakers) and his Richmond counterpart, Kevin Anderson, who just might be the best quarterback in the game that few have heard of.

Other than all the brackets that were blown up this weekend by Spiders and Rams and those unbelievable Butler Bulldogs, how could any true sports fan — much less any diehard college basketball fan — not love this tournament?

The purists can kick back this weekend and root for Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UConn or Ohio State — perhaps even Florida with its back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 — to move on. The upstart lovers have Richmond, VCU, San Diego State and BYU, who have exactly zero Final Fours among them.

Then there are all those programs in the middle: the Butlers, Marquettes, Arizonas and Wisconsins, teams that have made it to the final weekend before but aren’t necessarily viewed as royalty, though both Marquette (1977) and ’Zona (1997) own championships.

It might even be time to say the Selection Committee — and I’m swallowing hard and typing s-s-s-lo-o-o-wly as I write this — may have known more than most of us gave it credit for, at least as it pertained to sticking VCU in the field.

Because other than the top-ranked Buckeyes, the Rams arguably may be the most impressive team so far, having shredded Southern Cal in the play-in game Wednesday, humbled the Hoyas on Friday and blown up the Boilermakers on Sunday.

Never in the 73-year history of this tournament has there been a more impressive five-day run. (Not that there’s necessarily been another three-games-in-five-days stretch, but you get the picture.)

Point is, this may the most wide-open tournament since 2006, when No. 3 seed Florida knocked off No. 11 seed George Mason in one semifinal, then topped second seed UCLA in the title game after the Bruins had dropped No. 4 seed LSU in the other semi.

That remains the only time since the field went to 64 that no No. 1 seed reached the Final Four.

That doesn’t mean no No. 1s will be there this time.

As Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Sunday after watching Ohio State blow out George Mason, “Everybody says there are no great teams in college basketball this season, only good ones. I think Ohio State may be that one great one.”

And the Buckeyes might be. But after outlasting an amazingly athletic Washington squad, North Carolina looks fully capable of overcoming the Buckeyes, assuming OSU holds off Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

Then there’s that BYU-Florida matchup in one Southeast semifinal in New Orleans. The Cougars stunned the Gators in the opening round last season. The only problem with Jimmer Fredette shooting down Florida again would be all the money Bourbon Street would lose by having BYU’s Mormon fan base in town for the whole weekend.

As for the West, a Duke-UConn regional final would be incredible if the Dookies’ Nolan Smith and the Huskies’ Kemba Walker just played one-on-one for 40 minutes. Actually, they sort of do that anyway.

Finally, the worst and best thing about the Southwest in San Antonio is those Richmond schools. Because they’re both in the same regional they can’t both reach the Final Four. But because they’d have to win their regional semis to meet in the final, Richmond’s media can travel to only one location to cover them.

Regardless, VCU coach Shaka Smart may have done more than motivated his team the first week of March when he pulled out a piece of paper that contained the February portion of their schedule when they lost five of eight games, lit it and burned it.

“That’s now behind us,” he said. “We’re moving forward.”

The rest of us can probably now take a match to our brackets, but thanks to Richmond and VCU this tournament may be hotter than ever.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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