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Bertovich enjoys runs by VCU, CAA

Last Friday night, Ron Bertovich was watching Kansas dismantle Richmond in the Southwest Region final in the Alamodome. Bertovich, the Colonial Athletic Association's deputy commissioner for basketball, asked someone how many games Kansas had lost this season.

"Two," he was told.

"To who?" Bertovich said. "The Lakers and Heat?"

He thought the Jayhawks looked like an NBA team. But deep down, he knew Virginia Commonwealth had a chance against the No. 1 seed. After all, he had seen it before.

Five years earlier, in Bertovich's first year as chief of basketball for the CAA, George Mason -- like VCU an 11th seed -- had shocked top-seeded UConn in a regional final to earn a trip to the Final Four. Sure enough, it happened again.

On Sunday, VCU completed its improbable run from the "First Four" to the Final Four, shocking Kansas, 71-61, in the regional final. The Rams, one of the last four at-large teams in the expanded field, won five straight games against teams from five different BCS leagues to reach Saturday's national semifinal against Butler.

Bertovich, the former Sabres vice president and general manager of the Empire Sports Network, lives in Buffalo but commutes to his job at the CAA offices in Richmond, Va., which is also the home of VCU. Late Sunday night, after the biggest win in VCU history, he flew with the team and CAA staff back to a raucous homecoming.

"The charter landed at 12:30 and we got a police escort to the Arena," Bertovich said. "There were 5,000 fans waiting for the team. We got out of there around 2 in the morning. You live for moments like this."

There was a bit of deja vu for Bertovich. When he was hired by the CAA in 2005, the conference hadn't put more than one team in the NCAA Tournament since 1986. They were hoping Bertovich could replicate his success as Atlantic 10 commissioner in the 1990s, when the A-10 was the premier mid-major in the land.

His timing couldn't have been better. In Bertovich's first season (2005-06), the CAA put two teams in the NCAAs for the first time in 20 years. George Mason, an at-large team, made its run to the Final Four. In '07, VCU upset Duke in the first round in Buffalo, a special moment for Bertovich in his adopted home. Last year, Old Dominion upset Notre Dame in the opening round.

This year, for the first time in its history, the Colonial put three teams in the Big Dance (VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion). Experts ridiculed VCU, which had lost four of its last five. But the Rams silenced the doubters. George Mason upset Villanova in the first round. Old Dominion had the misfortune of drawing Butler in its first-round game.

Butler, of course, made it all the way to a second Final Four, setting up an unlikely clash of mid-majors in Saturday's opening semifinal at Reliant Stadium. This makes three out of six years that a non-BCS school will play in the Final Four, giving hope to every little school in the country.

"VCU was our fourth-best team," Bertovich said. "On the plane, someone said, 'Thirty days ago, they were trying to figure out how to beat Drexel in our conference semis. Now they're in the semifinals of the national championship. By the way, I'm calling this the Bracket Buster Super Bowl. As in, 'Oh my God, what happened to my bracket?' "

They're selling shirts on the VCU website that say, 'There goes my bracket!', with the image of a crumpled piece of paper. They sell for $19.95. Maybe you can purchase one as a reminder to take the top mid-majors more seriously in March.

That's what Bertovich stresses to the schools in the CAA. Make a commitment. Do everything you can to schedule tough opponents to build up an at-large resume. Sure, it's difficult. The entire CAA had just two home non-conference games against the six BCS leagues this season. It will only get tougher now.

"In early January, Duke played its ninth home game," Bertovich said. "Some of our seniors don't play nine home non-conference games in their careers. But the committee doesn't care if you get home games. They want you to play 16 or 17 games against top 100 (RPI) teams. We tell our schools, 'Figure out a way.'

"For years, we've preached to our schools to have a commitment," he said. "They've done that. And just as important is having fourth- and fifth-year seniors. When you have that experience on a neutral court, it makes all the difference in the world. The beauty is when they're on neutral courts. Line up and let them play."

VCU has four seniors and a junior among its top six players. George Mason had a senior-laden team in '06, too. As Bertovich said, experience matters at this level.

The VCU seniors have played more than 100 games together. They won the CBI last year. Teams with that sort of bond can have an edge over more physically gifted but younger squads.

And yes, the CAA teams can play. Over the last six years, the Colonial is a combined 7-2 against the Big East and ACC in the NCAA Tournament. This March, in order, VCU has taken down: The Pac-10 (USC), Big East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue), ACC (Florida State) and Big 12 (Kansas).

Now, they get the pride of the Horizon League, Butler. Who would have imagined that VCU would get to a sixth game and be up against another mid-major, as an underdog? Who would have guessed that Butler coach Brad Stevens, who looked like one of the players a year ago, would actually be older than VCU's coach, Shaka Smart?

On Monday night, a mid-major will play for the national championship for a second year in a row. Whatever happens, you can't blame Bertovich if he has a big smile on his face this weekend. Since he was hired six years ago, the CAA has put more schools in the Final Four than the Big 12 or the Pac-10.

Call it a mid-major league if you want. But that's a major achievement, any way you slice it. Come Monday night, people might be asking, how did that VCU team ever lose 11 games?

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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