#2 VCU (26-6) vs. # 3 George Mason (24-8)
By: Robert Canady
When: Sunday 4:30 p.m.
It seems it’s always been Carolina-Duke, Michigan St.-Michigan, and Kentucky-Louisville…now please add VCU-George Mason to that list. All are in state rivalries and for years the first three matchups have had national followings, in addition to their regional significance. However, until 2006 most people outside of Virginia couldn’t have told you where either Mason or VCU were located, or more importantly why you were asking.
That has all changed since both schools have made Final Four appearances since 2006. George Mason first put the school and the CAA conference on the map with its final four run in the 2005-06 season. Many bracketology experts blasted the at-large selection of the Patriots at the time.
Mason entered the tournament as an 11 seed and its run of victories over such blue-blood programs as Michigan St, North Carolina and Connecticut to reach the Final Four brought the school and team into the national spotlight. The Patriots ultimately fell to Florida in the semifinals, however they had become the new mid-major Cinderella.
VCU continued the conferences move into the national spotlight with its run to the Final Four last year. For the first time in conference history the CAA received three invitations to the tournament. VCU played in the newly named First Four round and defeated USC to advance to the full field of 64. From there VCU beat Georgetown, Purdue and Florida St before “Shakaing” (as in VCU head coach Shaka Smart) the basketball world by defeating No.1 seed Kansas to become the second CAA team in five years to reach the Final Four.
GMU and VCU have become as big of instate rivals as any of the previously mentioned matchups. Today’s matchup will be a rematch of last year’s semifinal in which VCU upset the No.1 seeded Patriots 79-63. The two teams met in the tournament championship game in 2009, as the top two seeds. VCU prevailed in that matchup as well in a 71-50 rout.
The two teams split this seasons games each winning at home. Sherrod Wright broke VCU’s heart on Valentine’s Day with a 35 foot running buzzer beater for a 62-61 victory that led to the obligatory storming of the court by the Mason fanatics. VCU avenged that loss in a regular season finale on February 25th by a score of 89-77.
Both teams will enter today’s semifinals on emotional highs. Mason won a thriller 61-59 against Georgia State Saturday night when Bryon Allen made a driving reverse layup with 3.4 seconds left in the game. VCU used a dominating 2nd half against Northeastern University that included 16 points from guard Rob Brandenburg to pull away from a 26-26 halftime deadlock.
VCU will use the Shaka Smart trademarked term of HAVOC in an effort to offset George Masons senior leadership of CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson and forward Mike Morrison who coach Paul Hewitt referred to after the Georgia St. game as “the smartest player I’ve ever had.”
VCU entered the 2011-12 season as the 9th youngest team in the country after losing 68% of its scoring and 58% of its minutes played from last year’s Final Four team. However, they have meshed into the nation’s best team when it comes to steals, leading the country with an average of 10.6 per game.
The Richmond Coliseum serves as a neutral site for the tournament; however it has a decided home court feel when VCU plays. Located just 1.5 miles from the VCU campus, the sellout crowd of 11,200 was a sea of Ram gold, with a decent amount of George Mason yellow making their presence felt as well. Today’s matchup will no doubt be another chapter in what is quickly becoming a national best seller.
In today’s other semifinal No. 1 Drexel faces two time defending tournament champion Old Dominion. Drexel defeated UNCW 59-47 in the first quarterfinal of the day. Old Dominion used a relentless fast break style of play to get past Delaware 88-74.
The Championship game between today’s winners will be Monday night on ESPN.