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Bracket-Busting Cinderella Teams Enter ‘Unprecedented’ March Madness Final Four

March 28, 2011 at 6:26 PM EST
Close games and major upsets have left many fans' brackets in shambles as March Madness, the men's college basketball tournament, reaches its final games. Judy Woodruff talks to Sports Illustrated's Maggie Gray about this year's "unprecedented and unpredictable" men's tournament and how the women's competition is shaking out.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now switching gears to close games, high tension and major surprises at the men’s college basketball tournament.

Judy Woodruff has our look.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s why it’s called March Madness. Eleven seed Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU, defeated top seed Kansas yesterday, earning a spot in next weekend’s men’s Final Four, only the third No. 11 seed ever to make it that far.

VCU coach Shaka Smart:

SHAKA SMART, Virginia Commonwealth University: Once again, we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game, but these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. And we talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think. And that’s really been our theme throughout the NCAA tournament, since we were selected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They’ll face off against eight seed Butler University, last year’s runner-up for the national championship. An improbable Cinderella-vs.-Cinderella match, VCU and Butler are the two lowest seeds to meet in the semifinals in tournament history.

Next weekend’s other game is a battle of unlikely Goliaths, as No. 4 Kentucky, who defeated higher-ranked North Carolina, takes on No. 3 Connecticut. For the first time in tournament history, no No. 1 or No. 2 seed will play in the semifinals, and only the third college basketball semifinal without a single No. 1 seed, since that ranking system began in 1979.

And for more now on all this March Madness, we’re joined by Maggie Gray. She is the anchor for videos on SportsIllustrated.com.

Maggie Gray, thank you for being with us.

So, what adjectives come to mind when you think of next weekend’s tournament?

MAGGIE GRAY, “Sports Illustrated”: It’s going to be unprecedented. It’s going to be completely unpredictable. We have no idea who is going to end up in this championship game.

As you said, it’s two Cinderellas squaring off in one side of the bracket and then two Goliaths in the other side. But we often ask ourselves now in the office, since Butler made it to the championship game last year, can they actually be a Cinderella again? I don’t know. I think we might have to take the slipper back from them, because they have proven they can be here, and they deserve to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that was my question. Are these Cinderellas, Butler and VCU, are they — did they get this far because they’re that good, or was there a fluke involved?

MAGGIE GRAY: I think, if you look at a first-round upset, where you have something crazy, where a big powerhouse school goes down, that could just be put in a category of just fluke upsets.

When you’re a Virginia Commonwealth, when if you think about it, they wouldn’t be in the tournament if this were last year — now the field has expanded to 68 teams — they had to play to even get to the field of 60.

So, they have already beaten USC, Southern Cal, out of the PAC-10. They have beaten Purdue. They beat Georgetown. They beat Florida State. And they beat Kansas. That’s going up against the biggest college basketball and college power conferences in the country.

They have definitely proven this is not a fluke. They deserve to be here. And they found the perfect combination at the perfect time. They have a very smart coach, Shaka Smart, who you heard from. They have a motivated group of upperclassmen. And that really can be a good recipe for going deep into this tournament.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about that motivation. We heard the coach say, you know, people — words to the effect, people have written us off.

What does explain this team, which, you know, a lot of analysts said they didn’t even belong in the tournament, what explains how they have come so far, without people giving them credit for it?

MAGGIE GRAY: Well, I think that was the storyline, especially early on. When the bracket was released on selection Sunday, a lot of the pundits went straight to Virginia Commonwealth and said they do not belong here.

And I think that the team could use that as motivation, but only for so long, because after a while, when you start beating some pretty big teams, like Georgetown, like Purdue, you’re going to start to get a little bit of a big head. And maybe the chip starts to come off your shoulder a little bit — not so with Virginia Commonwealth.

After the — being snubbed, or being discredited, if you will, after that has worn off, now they have found that — some deep-down talent. And you have to look at the way they have been winning. They have been leading in a lot of these games, especially by double figures. Against Kansas, they were up at 14 at the half. I mean, they are not just winning. They’re making a statement with each of these wins.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, does it say something, Maggie Gray, about the way this tournament is structured, about the way the seeds are chosen that a team — that two teams like this, that were so far back, have now catapulted to the very top?

MAGGIE GRAY: Well, seeding is almost more dramatic than some of what goes on on the court, if you ask a lot of people. You know, you have an NCAA selection committee. It’s 10 people. They’re usually athletic administrators or conference commissioners. And they decide who are the seeds, and they use a lot of factors.

They use obviously your record, wins and losses. They also use your strength of schedule. So, when you have mid-majors, like Virginia Commonwealth, who play in the Colonial Athletic Association, they’re going to have to look at their body of work. Now, three teams from the Colonial Athletic Association made it into the tournament this year, Old Dominion and also George Mason.

So, you have to wonder. They want to make sure that the caliber is actually true to the seed, and that every once in a while, you get a team that is either overachieving or is just hitting their stride at the right time. And that’s a Virginia Commonwealth right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on the other hand, not a single No. 1 or No. 2 seed in this Final Four.

MAGGIE GRAY: Isn’t that great?

(LAUGHTER)

MAGGIE GRAY: I mean, I know that, for people who are fans of those teams, I’m sorry to say. But that’s what makes this tournament fantastic.

When you look at the other side, with college football — and I don’t want to start a big war here — but you get the No. 1 and No. 2 rank from a computer system, and those two teams automatically play for the national championship. So, this way, it’s really open. And I know, obviously, you don’t have the physical punishment of a football game that you do in a basketball game.

But the way that this tournament is set up, you really give a chance for a group of Division I college basketball players to try to make a run. And you know what? I like it when it doesn’t go chalk. When they say chalk, that’s picking all the top seeds to advance out of their games. And that is what makes this tournament really one of the best, or if not the best, postseason championship that we have in sports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, quickly, dare I ask for predictions?

MAGGIE GRAY: Oh, gosh.

I mean, I — I like to say, the more you know, the worse off you’re going to be, because it’s impossible to predict some of these games. I do like Butler, however. They have been to the national championship game before last year on one side, even though Virginia Commonwealth has been a fantastic story.

And when you look over at the other side of the bracket, UConn, with Kemba Walker, has just been absolutely fantastic. They have won nine straight games — it started at Madison Square Garden with the Big East Tournament — five in a row, then four more in the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know how you best against UConn.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a quick question. There is another tournament going on, the women’s basketball. They are still in the — I guess it’s called the Elite Eight. The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are still in competition. What does it look like there?

MAGGIE GRAY: Well, yes. You said — you have UConn No.1 and Baylor as No. 2. It’s hard to bet against UConn. They’re back-to-back reigning NCAA champs. They’ve only lost one game in two years. And that was just a little bit earlier this season.

They are just absolutely fantastic. Maya Moore is their standout player. And she’s the all-time leading scorer in UConn history. They’re going to up — or if they make it to the finals, they will go up against Brittney Griner and Baylor.

And Griner is almost changing the women’s game. She’s 6’8” tall. She’s a shot-blocker. She has an outside shot. She’s really bringing a new dimension to the women’s game. And people love it that she can throw down some dunks in these games. And she’s really revved up the crowd.

But they’re going to have a steep, steep hill to climb against UConn.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Maggie Gray, “Sports Illustrated,” thank you.

MAGGIE GRAY: Thank you.