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There is Arizona, back to life after missing the tournament a year ago for the first time in 26 seasons. And there are two titans, Kansas and Ohio State, unthreatened thus far, looming over the field.
Of all the teams that survived last weekend, it is Virginia Commonwealth that best symbolizes the serendipitous side of this event. A year ago the NCAA decided not to expand the field to 96 or 128 teams, and instead added just three. But that change created the oddball First Four, de facto play-in games on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights of the opening week. To settle some of the debate over teams on the bubble, four of the eight play-in squads competed for No. 11 or 12 seeds in the tournament proper. The selection committee was widely ripped for including VCU, which had lost four of its final five regular-season games.
According to the Rams' players, coach Shaka Smart, 33, helped put an end to that slide by burning the February calendar page in front of the team. They went on to reach the Colonial Athletic Association championship game, where they lost to Old Dominion. By beating USC by 13 points on March 16 in Dayton, dumping Georgetown last Friday and crushing Purdue on Sunday, both by 18 points, VCU became the first team to reach the Sweet 16 with three victories.
At the heart of the Rams' run is relentless senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, who ripped the Boilermakers for 12 points and 11 assists on Sunday. The 5'10" Rodriguez was a productive sophomore (9.3 points per game) in 2008--09 but at the end of that season, coach Anthony Grant left for Alabama; Rodriguez had been especially close to Grant and decided to transfer to Division II Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., closer to his hometown of Merritt Island.
During that summer of 2009, teammates begged Rodriguez to return. Family members were more subtle. Rodriguez's father, Joe, says, "[Younger brother] Jeremy and I had a long talk with him and told him to take a little bit of time and think about things. Shaka had told me if Joey changed his mind, he'd be willing to take him back. We were sitting on the patio watching a Lakers game, and Joey came out and told us, 'Guys, I'm going back to VCU.' The whole family was jumping for joy."
In the Southwest Regional in San Antonio, the Rams will play 10th-seeded Florida State (which advanced by dismantling Notre Dame, 71--57) immediately after neighbor Richmond plays No. 1 Kansas, which won its first two games by a total of 33 points. The Spiders have lost just once since Jan. 29, a 73--53 thrashing by Temple in Philadelphia on Feb. 17; after that game, coach Chris Mooney, who had played for Pete Carril on Princeton's upset-minded teams of the early '90s, arranged for the team to play touch football as pressure relief. "That was a great moment for us after losing to Temple the way we did," says 6'10" forward Justin Harper. "By Coach allowing us to go out there, have some fun, was really refreshing for us as a team."
Marquette spent seemingly all of February on somebody's bubble watch before getting in with 14 losses, tied for most among at-large teams with Michigan State and Tennessee (which both dropped their opening games). When asked at a press conference during the subregional in Cleveland to describe his career journey, the 38-year-old Williams, whose nickname describes his hairstyle, spoke for more than 10 minutes. The transcript of his 1,500-word response could have been sent unedited to a publishing house.
Williams has slept at nine college addresses since 1990, beginning with Navarro College, a two-year school in Corsicana, Texas—and that doesn't count the time he dozed in his car before begging for a job at Texas-Arlington in '94. He didn't even reach the outskirts of the big time until 2004, when Billy Gillispie hired him as a recruiting coordinator at Texas A&M.
Williams has built the Eagles with players from his roots—junior college transfers Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, who drilled the go-ahead three-pointer to topple Syracuse. It was while sitting at a press conference alongside his three juco players that Williams channeled Frost: "These three guys and myself—we took the road less traveled." (College basketball historians might see a connection between Williams and Marquette legend Al McGuire, who could also talk endlessly and recruited players that others might not have. McGuire, of course, was pure Brooklyn. Williams is pure Texas.) In Newark on Friday night, the Golden Eagles will face a team that could not be further from Williams's common-man roundball roots when they take on second-seeded North Carolina.
Marquette's only Big East brother still alive in the tournament is Connecticut, another team—like Butler and Virginia Commonwealth—that seemed destined to watch the tournament from home or exit from it swiftly. The Huskies have seven freshmen on their roster and a coach, Jim Calhoun, who will be 69 in May. Yet they started the season with stunning efficiency, going 10--0 and taking the Maui Invitational. They also won six of their first seven games in the Big East before losing seven of their last 11.