This feels like the type of second chance that only comes in the movies. Five years after George Mason mounted an unprecedented NCAA Tournament run that still makes me see red to this day, I’ve got another opportunity to watch as a CAA rival try to topple the giants of college basketball, and enjoy it.
We have taken a great deal of pleasure in watching VCU turn Jay Bilas into the picture of clueless Duke arrogance, and will be rooting like hell this weekend for the Rams to not only match what Mason did but exceed it. What better way to render Mason and Jim Larranaga nothing more than a historical footnote than by winning FIVE games to reach the Final Four? Even if the run comes to an end tonight against Florida State or Sunday against Kansas or—and wouldn’t this be something?—Richmond, we’ll still have enjoyed it and the knowledge there’s a certain purity and legitimacy to VCU’s Cinderella story that we’ll never associate with the one authored by Mason.
But I have a pretty good suspicion that there’s one fanbase out there feeling a bit like we did five years ago—battling some conflicting emotions and finding it difficult to derive conference price in a rival’s surprising NCAA Tournament success because it feels slighted from within.
“Is this how you feel about Mason?” Loyal Reader and even more loyal Drexel fan Metsox1 asked me on Twitter Sunday. “Is that what I’m feeling?”
VCU’s stunning run began three weeks ago tomorrow, when the Rams benefited from some interesting officiating to edge Drexel, 62-60, on Jamie Skeen’s layup at the buzzer. A whole bunch of us ranted about it at the time, but in case you need a refresher, that was the game in which Drexel was whistled for 27 fouls (plus an odd technical for Bruiser Flint, who didn’t curse in arguing a non-foul call on VCU late in the second half but was whistled anyway) to 19 for VCU and in which the Rams went to the line more than twice as often (36 times) as the Dragons (17).
In the second half, VCU took 25 free throws to Drexel’s three. Again: 25 to 3. The Dragons had three players foul out, and Skeen hit the game-winning layup by muscling his way past Yannick Farmbor, who had four fouls.
“It’s disappointing that in a conference playoff game, a team can shoot 25 foul shots to three in the second half,” Flint told the Philadelphia Inquirer afterward.
The discrepancy was enough to raise the whole specter of Southern Bias, and this time without a tongue planted firmly in cheek. The game was to the CAA what Game Six of the Kings-Lakers Western Conference finals in 2002 was to the NBA: So awfully and lopsidedly officiated that we actually HOPE there was some kind of conspiracy at play, because the alternative—incompetence—is almost harder to stomach.
Such talk is not entered into lightly. And the truth is the establishment—the five Virginia schools and UNC Wilmington, all of whom were in the CAA before the America East Four saved the league in 2001—has dominated basketball the last 10 years because it has been better than the newcomers. A LOT better.
As solid as Hofstra, Drexel and Northeastern have been—the three schools have finished .500 or better in CAA play 20 out of a possible 26 times since joining the league—Towson has been one of the worst programs in America the last 10 years. Delaware and Georgia State have been irrelevant since departing the America East and Atlantic Sun, respectively, which is a fate almost worse than Towson’s.
Since expansion, the establishment is 31-8 against the newcomers in the quarterfinals of the CAA Tournament and beyond. The newcomers have been the lower-seeded team 32 times, and Hofstra’s win over William & Mary in the quarterfinals this year ended a 16-game winning streak by the establishment over newcomers in the quarterfinals and later.
Only 10 of the 39 games have been decided by six or fewer points or in overtime. Most of these were games in which the officiating didn’t seem to tilt things in favor of the establishment. For instance, when William & Mary knocked off Northeastern, 47-45, in the 2010 semifinals, the two teams shot the same number of free throws and the Tribe were actually whistled for four more fouls than the Huskies. When Hofstra fell to Old Dominion 52-51 in the 2009 quarterfinals, the Dutchmen were whistled for four more fouls and had one less free throw attempt than the Monarchs.
The winning team shot at least 10 more free throws in five of these 10 close games, but Hofstra did it twice (in an upset of George Mason in 2002 and VCU in 2006). Only three times has a Virginia school benefited from seemingly lopsided officiating in a close game against a non-establishment school.
But the last time it happened was in the 2006 quarterfinals, when George Mason edged 10th-seeded Georgia State, 61-56, in overtime. The foul discrepancy in that game was even more lopsided than in VCU-Drexel: Georgia State was whistled for 30 fouls and took 16 free throws while George Mason had just 18 fouls and took 37 free throws. The Panthers had four players foul out while only Jai Lewis was disqualified for the Patriots.
I think we can all agree that if George Mason loses that game, the Patriots never sniff the NCAA Tournament. Even having its athletic director on the Selection Committee wouldn’t have been enough for Mason to overcome losing to a sub-.500 team in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
Five years later, VCU had to do more than just win one game in the CAA Tournament to assure itself a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But VCU never gets a chance to bolster its at-large candidacy by convincingly beating Mason in the semifinals if the Rams don’t get past Drexel. And it sure is an interesting coincidence that the two times the CAA had its best shot at three NCAA Tournament bids, a Virginia-based school got a HUGE assist in an oddly officiated game to keep its hopes of an at-large bid alive.
Of course, without the NCAA adding four teams to the tournament field, VCU never gets in. But we will always wonder why it took an expansion of the NCAA Tournament in order for the CAA to get three teams in the tournament when Hofstra—with a 14-4 CAA record, two games better than the one fashioned by VCU this year, and an RPI of 30, nearly 20 spots higher than VCU’s RPI entering the tournament—had such an impressive resume yet still missed out five years ago.
Or, for that matter, why Drexel didn’t make it three CAA teams in the NCAA Tournament in 2007, when the Dragons finished fourth in the CAA (the same spot as VCU this year) with a 13-5 record (one game better than the Rams), an RPI of 43 and road wins at Villanova, Syracuse and Creighton. Two northern teams, two excellent resumes, no NCAA bids. Interesting.
This year’s Drexel squad didn’t have at-large aspirations, not after a fifth-place finish and with an RPI of 74. And thankfully, nobody got punched in the nuts. So the Dragons’ plight isn’t as odious as Hofstra’s was in 2006, or their own a year later.
But who can blame Dragons fans for wondering what if about potential matchups with George Mason and Old Dominion and for wanting a fairer fate out of this season? While VCU gets to play for a spot in the Elite Eight, Drexel is saddled with the indignity of finishing the season with the second-highest RPI of any school not invited to a postseason tournament.
We’ll be rooting for the Rams to extend their Cinderella run as long as possible. But we won’t forget how it began, nor will we blame our Drexel brethren if they are unable to climb aboard the VCU bandwagon. Because we understand, as much as we wish we didn’t, how tough it is to view Southern Bias as just an easy punchline.