Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/20/2008 12:45:00 AM
Day 9: Chasing Cinderella
Eric Maynor and VCU celebrate their 2007 NCAA tournament upset of Duke.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
OMAHA, Neb. -- It was 2:15 a.m. when I finally found VCU's hotel, which technically made it the morning after the first day of the 2007 NCAA tournament. As a No. 11 seed with an equally low ranking on the NCAA's lodging-placement chain, the Rams had been stashed out near the Buffalo airport, at the Millennium in Cheektowaga, N.Y. Outside it was a bitterly cold March night; inside, some energized debauchery was just starting to wind down. Ravaged pizza boxes were scattered about a ledge in the lobby, and a pack of VCU fans were in the process of loudly closing down the hotel bar. As I eyed this scene, then VCU director of basketball operations (and former Florida star) Brett Nelson emerged from a separate hallway to greet me. He had not come from the bar, but rather the coaches' suite upstairs, where serious preparations were underway.
Earlier that night, the Rams had pulled off one of those first-round upsets that often define an NCAA tournament as much as the title team. As a writer, I tend to treat my mere attendance at such events like badges of honor. Seeing Wisconsin-Green Bay stun Cal (in 1994), Vermont shock Syracuse (in 2005) and VCU upset Duke (in '07) created more lasting images for me than being at the past three Final Fours. And for a player such as the Rams' Eric Maynor -- who, with a simple wave of his hand, convinced his coach, Anthony Grant, that there was no need for a timeout to set up the final play; and then raced up the floor to drill a jumper in the face of Blue Devils sophomore Jon Scheyer -- that performance may define his career. With that shot, Maynor went from an unknown to a household name. He was the point man for the tournament's biggest upset.
I was pulling double-duty in Buffalo, writing for SI.com but also reporting for a possible magazine story on VCU, in the event it also upset Pitt to reach the Sweet 16. That's why Grant was willing to let me in on the Rams' first scouting session on the Panthers, which was being held in room 250 of the Millennium, a large, open space with one bed, a couch, a pair of TVs and a laptop video-editing operation. The main table, away from the TVs, contained the aftermath of a fast-food feast: empty Big Mac boxes and half-eaten pizzas. On the floor nearby were cases of soda and Red Bull.
Grant and his staff -- Nelson, and assistants John Brannen, Tony Pujol and Allen Edwards -- were running on the adrenaline of the win as well as mega-doses of caffeine. Video coordinator James Kane, the man who was busily chopping up edits of Pitt tape, drank more Red Bulls than I believed to be humanly possible (or advisable by the FDA). It was the equivalent of a late-night cram session for an exam, only the stakes here were infinitely higher.
Grant and Pujol, who had done the lead scout on the Panthers, were on the couch, intently watching tape of Pitt's game against Louisville from the '07 Big East tournament, occasionally offering commentary. "Does Pitt even have a small lineup?" Grant asked at one point. "I mean, Sam Young [who's 6-foot-6] would be our center."
Yet they wondered if the Panthers, in order to counteract VCU's perimeter weapons, might stray away from using their giant front line of Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall and Young. "Every team, across the board, has gone small against us," Brannen said, bolstering his point by referencing Duke's decision to keep 7-footer Brian Zoubek on the pine all night. The silver lining for them, if Pitt did stay "big," was that Gray appeared to struggle to recover after hedging on picks. "See that? On the pick and roll, he doesn't get back. Our guys will be wide open," Pujol said.
The Rams' coaches, forced to make to do with a front line of no one over 6-foot-7, discussed how they'd stop Gray on defense. The personnel report's slide on Pitt's giant read, "NO DEEP TOUCHES." Pujol said they didn't "have any choice but to collapse" on him, but had to do it in different ways so the Panthers wouldn't exploit the double-teams.
Gray's size, in the end, was only part of what beat VCU in the second around. They took third-seeded Pitt to overtime before losing 84-79, with Young and clutch point guard Levance Fields making key shots in the extra period. It didn't discount the fact that VCU had, for a couple of days, captured the nation's hearts. The little team from Richmond had an overlooked star in Maynor, who had been raised as a Duke-hater in North Carolina but not recruited by the ACC. They had a physical symbol for their team commitment to winning in the NCAAs: an actual chain of golden carabiners, with each player's initials written on one link. They had a coach on the rise in Grant, who had been an assistant on Florida's championship team the previous year. For that moment, at least, they were the darlings of the dance.
I left that hotel room at 5 a.m. on Friday; the coaches said they stayed up for another half hour, and then rose again at 8 a.m. In a closed practice later that day, Grant didn't show the slightest sign of fatigue. I, on the other hand, looked completely exhausted, but in a good way. The best day of my sporting year -- opening day of the NCAA tournament -- had turned into the longest day of my working year. All in the name of chasing Cinderella.
As we begin this, the first day of this year's tourney, we can only hope to find at least one more VCU. Will it be Winthrop or George Mason? Cal State-Fullerton or Oral Roberts? If Thursday passes without yielding a new America's team, we will inevitably be left feeling as if something were missing from March Madness. In the first-round upset lies the true spirit of the dance.