SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Once upon a time …
Years from now, that is how the story of the 2011 NCAA Tournament will begin. For isn't that how every good fairy tale is told?
Swap hummingbirds for pep bands and an ogre for Jim Calhoun, and the rest will write itself.
We have seen giants slayed and young men cry. We have seen endings that defy belief and characters that renew our faith. And dribbling the ball in the backcourt of Virginia Commonwealth, I swear we have even seen a dwarf.
Once upon a time, the Final Four began without a favorite.
Oh, you may like Connecticut. After all, the Huskies probably have the best player in the nation. And they are the highest remaining seed at No. 3.
But can you really put all of your faith in a team that finished tied for ninth in its own conference during the regular season?
The reality is this is the first time that neither a No. 1 nor a No. 2 seed will be at the Final Four. That means the top eight teams in the tournament were all whacked in the first two weekends of play. Along the way, they were upset by two No. 8s, a No. 10 and a No. 11. Not a single No. 1 or 2 got far enough to play each other.
And while Kentucky and Connecticut have the pedigree of previous champions, one will eliminate the other in the semifinals on Saturday night.
Once upon a time, the Final Four welcomed a true Cinderella.
It is not unheard of for a mid major or a low seed to crash the party at the Final Four, but it's extraordinary to see two of them in the same year and on the same side of the bracket.
Butler, meet VCU. VCU, meet Butler. America, meet your fantasy.
One way or another, an underdog is going to play for the national title a week from tonight. And it will be the first time since Villanova in 1985 that a team seeded No. 8 or worse will make it to the championship game.
It could be Butler, which was supposed to take a step backward in the Horizon League in 2011. The Bulldogs were not as dominant as they were last season, when they reached the title game against Duke as a No. 5 seed.
Or it could be VCU, which was supposed to take a step toward the NIT in 2011.
VCU, of course, is the real interloper of the bunch. In the fairy tale, Cinderella was not even supposed to be at the ball, let alone dancing with Prince Charming.
And that's the story of VCU. The Rams were so worried about being left out of the field, they did not even gather to watch the NCAA selection show 15 days ago.
So they weren't there to hear ESPN analyst Dick Vitale shouting that VCU's invitation was an injustice for Virginia Tech and Colorado. He described VCU as Roseanne Barr at a beauty contest. Fellow analyst Jay Bilas called the decision indefensible.
Had the field not been expanded from 65 to 68 teams, VCU might have never made it here because the Rams were among the teams in the new First Four play-in games.
Even on Sunday, in the moments before tipoff, the Rams were being told they did not belong. When the captains of the two teams gathered at midcourt with the referee, VCU senior guards Ed Nixon and Joey Rodriguez got the cartoon-bully treatment from Kansas' twin towers, Markieff and Marcus Morris.
"One of the Morris brothers said, 'Y'all had a good run, but it's time for y'all to go home,' " said Nixon, the St. Petersburg Times All-Pinellas County player of the year out of Lakewood High in 2007. "They were very confident. Maybe too confident.
"They must have thought they were already there."
Yet it was VCU that played like a champion. It was VCU that had the nerve to hit shot after shot from beyond the 3-point line. It was VCU that stepped up to hit free throws. And it was VCU that did not blink when the Jayhawks stormed back in the second half to cut the lead from 18 to two.
And just like Butler against Florida on Saturday, the team from the smaller conference with the younger head coach played a more poised game down the stretch.
"Who is going to be the underdog," Shaka Smart, VCU's 33-year-old coach, said when asked about Butler. "What it does say about college basketball is any very good team from any league can go to the Final Four. You don't have to be one of the BCS conference teams. Over the last 10-15 years, the playing field has evened out a bit.
"So with us and Butler going to the semifinals, it's a game for — I don't want to say the little guys — but the medium-sized guys."
The Rams have embraced the role of underdogs, but they have done it with a wink and a nod. They realize they endangered their own chances by losing five of their final seven regular-season games. And they understand the fourth-place team in the Colonial Athletic Association is not a typical candidate for an at-large bid.
In quiet moments, they will even admit their goal this season was simply to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
"Have you ever seen the movie Forrest Gump?" Nixon said, when asked about reaching beyond the Sweet 16 aspirations. "Well Forrest Gump started running. And when he got to the ocean, he said, 'You know what? I'm going to keep on running.' And that's what we're doing. We're going to keep running. Keep fighting."
Forrest Gump may not be a fairy tale, but you get the idea.
This is a story that is almost too good to be true.
So, once upon a time …