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NCAA Southwest Region notebook: Shaka gives Shockers national love

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 26, 2011, at 8:12 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 30, 2012, at 4:21 p.m.

SAN ANTONIO — The comparisons are eerie.

George Mason, a No. 11 seed from the Colonial Athletic Conference, impressed the nation in 2006 by reaching the Final Four.

VCU, a No. 11 seed from the same conference, stands one game away from the Final Four.

George Mason, which opened its NCAA play in Dayton, Ohio, beat top-seeded Connecticut in the regional final.

VCU, which opened the NCAA in Dayton, meet top-seeded Kansas in the regional final.

In 2006, George Mason’s at-large selection was strengthened by a Bracketbusters victory at Wichita State. Same for VCU this year.

VCU coach Shaka Smart was asked about the Rams’ Bracketbusters win at Koch Arena against Wichita State on Feb. 18 and whether that 68-67 last-second win was the difference in VCU making the NCAA Tournament as one of the last at-large teams.

“I’m not sure if that one game would have made the difference,’’ he said. “But yeah, we probably needed that win to get in the tournament, as did George Mason in 2006 when they went to Wichita State and won the Bracket Busters game.’’

Smart again talked about how impressed he was by the atmosphere at Koch Arena for that game.

“Wichita State’s home-court environment is as good as anywhere you go in the country,’’ he said. “For our guys to go in there and play as we did, and made the big plays down the stretch, I think that really showed to a national audience on ESPN that we were worthy of the at-large bid.’’

A road less traveled — Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Southwest Regional, has beaten 16, 9 and 12 seeds so far in its pursuit of a spot in next week’s Final Four in Houston.

If the Jayhawks defeat No. 11 seed VCU today at the Alamodome, they will match the 2001 Michigan State team for the easiest road — with the seeding of its opponents being the barometer — since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

That Michigan State team, which lost to Arizona 80-61 in the national semifinals, was also a No. 1 seed. The Spartans defeated Alabama State (82-70), Fresno State (81-65), Gonzaga (77-62) and Temple (69-62) en route to the Final Four.

So far in this tournament, Kansas has beaten Boston University (16), Illinois (9) and Richmond (12).

By adding the seeding numbers of opponents, KU will have played seeded teams totaling 48 after today. UNLV in 1990 and North Carolina in 1991 beat four teams with seeds totaling 47 en route to the Final Four.

Kansas coach Bill Self said he doesn’t think about where teams are seeded. Instead, he said matchups are the key.

“I haven’t really spent much time this year studying anything but the Southwest bracket,’’ Self said. “And the Southwest bracket has the last two remaining teams in it that are playing the best.’’

The 2008 KU team that won the national championship reached the Final Four by playing lower-seeded teams. The Jayhawks beat Portland State (16), UNLV (8), Villanova (12) and Davidson (10).

KU’s tough 59-57 win over Davidson and Stephen Curry was one of the most difficult and satisfying for Self, who was noticeably relieved when the final buzzer sounded at Ford Field in Detroit.

Self said he’s a believer in the Elite Eight game being the most difficult of the tournament.

“We started out 0-4 in the Elite Eight,’’ he said. “The whole makeup of the marketing of the tournament is ‘Road to the Final Four.’ So it’s almost like it is winning a championship to get there and then you play a separate championship once you get there.’’

The trash-talk thing — VCU and Kansas spent time talking about trash-talking and disrespect. The Rams said they won’t be intimidated by the Jayhawks, but Markieff Morris liked the idea that VCU was thinking about it.

“They already have us on our minds,” Morris said. “We don’t want to try and bully anybody, but that’s good that they think that’s what we’re going to do.”

Anywhere but CBS — VCU’s Brandon Burgess had just polished off two bacon cheeseburgers at Five Guys. Ed Nixon got caught up in one of his favorite shows, “Johnny Test,” on the Cartoon Network.

As other bubble teams fretted their fate, VCU seemed resigned to the bad news largely perpetrated by mock bracketeers.

It’s not that that Rams didn’t believe in themselves, but Smart thought the team had given too much to wallow in disappointment.

“I didn’t want our season to be defined by that night, and that’s why I kind of made it low-key,” Smart said.

Similarities — Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor said his VCU counterpart, Joey Rodriguez, reminds Taylor of former Kansas State guard Denis Clemente.

“Coach (Danny) Manning said he was a smaller version of Clemente,” Taylor said. “I’ve just got to use my strength and quickness against him.”

Winner gets Butler — Butler will make its second straight Final Four appearance after defeating Florida in the Southeast Regional. If the Jayhawks win today, it will set up the first meeting between the programs.

Like father, like son? — Kansas senior guard Brady Morningstar suited up for games but didn’t play during the 2007-08 season, watching as the Jayhawks won a national championship.

Should Kansas win today, he and his father, Roger Morningstar, would become the first father-son combination in school history to play in the Final Four.

Roger started on the Jayhawks’ 1973-74 team that lost to Marquette 76-64 in the national semifinals in Greensboro, N.C.

“We don’t really talk about (the Final Four) too much, that was his time, his era,” Brady said. “This is about us and our group. Growing up in Lawrence and playing basketball, I had dreams of playing high Division I and always hoped it would be (at Kansas), but I think every little kid that plays basketball in Lawrence dreams of that. It’s just cool to have this opportunity.”

The go-getter — Kansas forward Thomas Robinson’s 14 rebounds in Friday’s Sweet 16 victory over Richmond were a season high for the sophomore, topping his total of 13 in a win over Missouri on March 5.

Against the Spiders, Robinson grabbed boards in a myriad of ways — one-handed snags, sliding to the floor, and once shooting the ball on the left side of the hoop and missing the rim completely, only to grab the ball on the other side and put it back in for two of his 12 points.

“I don’t know if there’s any rhyme or reason to how I’m able to get boards,” Robinson said. “Just when I go out there I know that in my mind I’m like I have to get the ball. I have to be the one who comes up with it.”

Shakastotle — Smart is heavy into symbolism and sports psychology, and will use anything from ancient philosophy to pop culture to get his point across.

For Smart, who played at Kenyon College but was also accepted at Harvard, Yale and Brown, it’s all part of the game.

After going 2-5 in the month of February, Smart got the Rams together, pulled the month of February out of a calendar and burned it in front of them.

“I set it on fire in practice,” Smart said. “And our players watched it burn. And that was a symbolic way to demonstrate to them that, hey, that month is over. Those setbacks that we had in February are gone.”

On the cover of VCU’s media guide for the NCAA Tournament, Smart has a quote from Socrates on the cover under “Coach Smart’s Quote of the Tournament.”

“I like to use a lot of quotes and stuff like that for motivation,” Smart said. “It’s something I’ve always done.”

After beating Florida State on Friday in the Sweet 16, one of Smart’s sisters showed him something on the odds of the remaining eight teams in the NCAA Tournament to win the national title.

“It said Kansas now has a 44-percent chance of winning the national championship,” Smart said. “And we have a 0.9-percent chance. So it’s kind of like the movie ‘Dumb and Dumber:’ ‘So you’re saying we’ve got a chance!’

“That’s how our guys are. If we have a chance, if there’s an opportunity for us to go do it, then we’re going to put everything into it and we’re not going to stop until that chance is zero.”

Basketball now, football later — The Alamodome will welcome back big-time college football this fall when Texas-San Antonio opens play as an Bowl Subdivision member. The Roadrunners will play their first game on Sept. 3 against NCAA Division II Northeastern Oklahoma, which will join the MIAA in 2012. Former Miami coach Larry Coker was hired as UTSA’s first coach in March 2009.

“We’re ready for it,” said UTSA associate director of athletic communications Brian Hernandez. “A lot of the athletic staff here has a background in football. We’re excited to have Division I football, it’s a big deal.”

The Alamodome, which seats 30,779 for basketball, will be able to hold 65,000 for football games.

Cinderella teams — KU’s Markieff Morris knows what a Cinderella team is, but not “Cinderella.”

“They’re exciting teams,” he said. “That’s it. I don’t remember the movie too much.”

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