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Mid-majors aren't just Cinderellas

George Mason's run to the Final Four in 2006 was viewed by some as an anomaly. Turns out it was a sign of things to come.

Mid-major schools always do damage in the NCAA Tournament, but win a national title? Perish the thought.

Then along comes Butler, which was a nearly made half-court shot away last year from doing what supposedly was the impossible.

Well, Butler is back in the Final Four after a 74-71 win over Florida in the Southeast regional final. And this year, the Bulldogs are bringing along a fellow mid-major for company.

Virginia Commonwealth's 71-61 upset of top-seeded Kansas in the Southwest regional final continues one of the most improbable tournament odysseys ever.

It says a lot about college basketball that an eighth (Butler) and 11th seed (VCU) can get this far. Gone are the days when the big boys can win just by showing up.

Things would be different in a best-of-seven series. But the one-and-done format is what makes the NCAA Tournament special. On any given day, a mid-major can look bigger-name opponents in the eye and make them blink.

The Butler-VCU national semifinal will be the lowest-seeded matchup in history. But make no mistake about it, Butler and VCU deserved to be in the Final Four because they were the best teams in their regions.

Butler may not have more talent than the four teams (No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 9 Old Dominion) it beat, though Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard can play for anyone in the country. But none of Butler's opponents had more heart or mental toughness. The Bulldogs trailed at some point in every game, yet they kept fighting and found a way to win.

Butler's four victories by a combined margin of 13 points showed that experience in pressure-cooker games means something. The Bulldogs maintained their cool when the heat was turned up.

VCU didn't just win the Southwest, it romped through the region by winning four of its five games by double digits. The Rams' closest call was a one-point win against No. 10-seed Florida State. Along the way, the Rams swept past teams from power conferences like the Big East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue), Big 12 (Kansas), ACC (Florida State) and Pac-10 (Southern Cal).

What really makes VCU's run so compelling is some people didn't think they should have gotten into the tournament. The Rams lost four of their last five regular-season games and finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Despite reaching the conference tournament final, no one, not even the players and coaches, thought they would get an invite. But they got it anyway. Perhaps they can thank the NCAA for expanding the field from 65 to 68 teams.

Still, critics voiced their opposition to VCU's inclusion, with ESPN talking heads Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas among the loudest voices.

What VCU has done does not mean Vitale, Bilas and others were wrong. It just means the Rams got an opportunity and took advantage of it. They also matched up well with everybody they faced.

Kansas had the two studs in twins Marcus and Markieff Morris, but from what I could tell VCU had more overall talent. You could even argue VCU big man Jamie Skeen was the best player on the floor Sunday.

It would have been cool if Butler and VCU got to play each other in the national title game. But by meeting each other in the semifinal, one of them is assured of a chance to win it all.

And who knows? One of them might actually pull it off.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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