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Sports Then and Now

VCU vs. Kansas: Cinderella Meets The Wizard of Oz Meets The Bachelor

Posted on March 28, 2011 by John Wingspread Howell

Will VCU end up wearing the glass slipper at the 2011 NCAA Championships?

Bear with me. I’m mixing three metaphors but it all works out in the end.

We call it the Big Dance. We refer to the party crashers as Cinderella. No team is more of a Cinderella in this year’s March Madness than Virginia Commonwealth. And the pundits and purists who expressed their loathing of the Rams making the tournament at all, are the ugly stepsisters.

You can’t blame them. Like the stepsisters of the fairy tale, those who scorn the likes of VCU crashing the party are those who stand on convention. They are traditionalists. They perpetuate arranged marriage. If a prince seeks a bride, then she must have a pedigree. When the Fairy Godmother smiles on the upstart, they are beside themselves.

VCU has garnered more scorn than any team making the cut in recent memory. Thus they are the quintessential Cinderella. Metaphor number one.

Enter Kansas Jayhawks. A sign in the crowd at the Kansas/VCU game read, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” That was obvious. Marv Albert said the Jayhawks looked “shell shocked” late in the first half. “Did you see the look in their eyes?” He exclaimed.

The only remaining number one seed was definitely not in Kansas any more, Call them shell shocked. Call them Dorothy in Munchkin Land. Definitely not in Kansas. Metaphor number two.

Except this Dorothy has no ruby slippers. And I guess you would call VCU the Munchkins. And they have the glass slipper. The only question remaining is will the slipper fit in the end.

Who Will Win the NCAA Men's Basketball Title?

  • VCU Rams (52%, 15 Votes)
  • Butler Bulldogs (21%, 6 Votes)
  • Connecticut Huskies (21%, 6 Votes)
  • Kentucky Wildcats (7%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 29

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VCU refused to whither away against the mighty Jayhawks.

Back to basketball. What happened to Kansas? How did VCU pull it off? Don’t ask either team. Neither one has a clue what just happened.

Butler was almost as amazing. Making it a second year in a row, with a purportedly lesser team than the one that came within a clutch shot of actually snagging the Prince in the last go-round was pretty amazing. But at least it was conceivable they could repeat. If for no other reason than the fact that they did it last year.

They had become the iconic Cinderella. If a different team was going to do it this year, then that team would be “the new Butler.”

But VCU is not the new Butler. Way beyond that. They are the first VCU. The original. One of a kind. How long might we wait for another 11 seed to make the Final Four?

But it isn’t even about making it. It is about the way they made it. The Rams played over their heads throughout the game. Kansas played as if they were clueless, trying to find the Yellow Brick Road on their GPS. Shell shocked. Eyes glazed. How could it happen?

The key moment in the game was late in the first half. VCU kept adding to their lead, getting close to doubling the Jayhawks’ score. Kansas couldn’t hit free throws, say nothing of three-point shots. They couldn’t even get a rebound for a while. That was the moment the game was settled.

Kansas seemed to revive a little after that. VCU seemed to falter. Kansas closed the gap to a not insurmountable deficit of 15, 14, seemed to rouse a little near the end of the half, but it was already set. They had already lost and may have known it. That knowledge may have been what allowed them to start hitting a few shots, pulling down a few boards. It suddenly didn’t matter, so they could let go and just play the game. They closed the gap but the door was already shut.

But how did it happen? Here’s where worlds collide. The stepsisters (pundits, purists, handicappers, analysts) put all their faith in pedigree. Standings, rankings, seedings are everything. In a controlled environment, the better team should win every time. Pedigree trumps passion. Science trumps religion. Numbers don’t lie. Except when they do.

What makes March Madness mad, and what makes it our favorite sporting event of the year, is that all bets are off, at least for some teams, at least for a while. It’s fun to speculate about which low seed will keep fighting, and for how long.

Everyone expects at least one Cinderella to emerge and have a good run. But it’s not supposed to go all the way. Sanity is supposed to prevail in the end. The ball gown is supposed to turn back into rags when the clock strikes twelve.

The dream is supposed to be over and Dorothy is supposed to wake up in her own bed, back in Kansas.

VCU wasn't supposed to actually be able to win the trophy.

You get the impression that even Cinderella is supposed to know her place. She’s supposed to heed the fairy godmother’s warning and slip out before the clock strikes. She’s supposed to appreciate the opportunity, then disappear so the real princess can find her prince.

But that’s the trouble with sports, if it is trouble. That’s why they play the games. There has to be an element of surprise, of unintended consequences, of upsets and turnabout.

The step sisters would accept that on a very limited basis. They would be fine with a two seed or three seed versus a one seed. Maybe even a four or five seed. That would be the upset. Anything lower than five, would just be too much anarchy.

Well, here’s to anarchy. And what we have is true love versus arranged marriage. Cinderella walks into the room and all heads turn. Like VCU she is too stupid (in the best sense of the word) not to know how stupid she is, not to know that she can’t possibly marry the prince. She can get a quick dance if she’s lucky, but she should just be happy to be there and leave it at that. But then she gets there and she sees the prince and he sees her and they fall in love. Love wreaks havoc with hierarchies and structures.

This is the sense in which sport is like religion, is in fact religion in its own way. St. Paul says, “Faith is the essence of things unseen.” In the Kansas game, it was obvious that VCU was seeing something no one else could see. They were visualizing themselves beating all odds, breaking the clock, getting the last dance after midnight.

Religion and romance are two versions of the same truth, two expressions of the same force, and equally unpredictable, equally out of control. It isn’t something you can will into being. It wills you.

All the putative Cinderella teams enter the tournament hoping they will be the real Cinderella. They all have that hope, some may even have that belief. But it is completely beyond them. That is the difference between the Richmond Spiders and the VCU Rams. Both believed they could. But only one fell in love.

There’s no controlling when you’ll fall in love or with whom, but once you fall, it’s still only half done. You can still blow it. You can try too hard. You can fear too much. Or you can just surrender.

That over-one’s-head performance comes from being in love, but the victory comes from staying in the zone, not over thinking it. Just dancing. Just singing. Just letting the music and the magic carry you.

That’s what I saw in the faces and the graces of VCU at that moment near the end of the first half. They had the stardust. They weren’t trying to break it down and figure out how to keep on doing it. They just flowed. They just danced. They believed in that stupid young love reductionism that over-simplifies, that boils the world down into nothing more than dreams and dancing. That’s why it was over for Kansas.

The Jayhawks couldn’t compete with that. They could see that VCU was dancing but they couldn’t hear the music. Hence the glazed look in their eyes.

VCU has made it to Oz, but will they find treasure at the end of the rainbow?

But what now? Now it’s VCU vs. Butler. A Cinderella dance-off. The Bachelor: Royal Edition. Which one gets the rose?  Metaphor number three.

It still could happen for Butler, again. In this fairy tale zone, lightning strikes twice if it strikes at all.

And it’s still possible, if not even likely that VCU will be startled out of their spell. If they stop listening to the music in their heads, if they allow themselves to suddenly realize what they’ve gotten themselves into, the clock will strike twelve. They’ll be going home in tatters. It’s more likely than not, but it was more likely than not that Kansas would dispatch them just as they had the Richmond Spiders.

The world of probability ended before halftime in the Kansas game. We’re in Munchkin Land now. On the Yellow Brick Road. All bets that weren’t off already are off now. We’re almost to the point that the improbable, by its sheer improbability, has become the more likely scenario. The unbelievable has become the un-doubtable.

I don’t have a feeling about Butler either way, but If VCU can find a way to break the clock in the semi’s, my money’s on them for the finals as well.

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