The Virginia Commonwealth players had gone to their rooms in a San Antonio hotel last Saturday night, and only the coaches and team managers remained in a conference room. The Rams had already written the NCAA tournament's most unlikely story, emerging from the backwater of a polarizing invitation and a play-in game to pull off four straight upsets and advance to the Elite Eight. In less than 24 hours they would play mighty Kansas, the last remaining No. 1 seed, for a place in the Final Four. Assistant coach Mike Rhoades produced two fresh basketball nets, pristine and white. He laid them on a table and cut them into small pieces, then walked out into the hotel and looped a strand of the net over each of the players' door handles. They would awaken to find the most powerful symbol in postseason basketball awaiting them, like presents on Christmas morning.
Four teams remain, yet none belong. VCU lost five of its last eight regular-season games, a slide that started with a hideous 91--80 road loss to a lousy Northeastern team. Butler was 14--9 in early February, and besides, everybody knows the Bulldogs' contract with the devil was a one-year deal that expired when Gordon Hayward left for the NBA last spring. Connecticut finished ninth in the Big East. Ninth. Kentucky was supposed to ride John Wall's afterburners to the national title a season ago, but the Wildcats didn't, and most of that team is in the NBA now, having left coach John Calipari to start anew in the bluegrass (just the way he likes it).
Yet these four teams are alive, and on Saturday at a giant football stadium in Houston they will contest a Final Four like no other. Over the last 25 seasons the average seed of a Final Four team is 2.5. The average this year is a staggering 6.5, the highest ever. Which either validates the widespread theory that college basketball in 2010--11 lacked a superteam or signifies the dawn of a new era, when the one-and-done culture shoves all good teams to the middle and the hottest one come springtime wins it all.
But that is a question for the months and years ahead. For now it brings the sport to the stunning reality that Virginia Commonwealth (a No. 11 seed with a 28--11 record) will play Butler (No. 8, 27--9) in the first of two national semifinals, guaranteeing the tournament a second straight so-called mid-major in the title game, on April 4. The sheer joy attached to that statement was best understood late on Sunday afternoon in the back of a locker room at the Alamodome, where Shaka Smart, 33, VCU's ascendant second-year coach, stood next to a locker with his blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, tie gone, eating a banana.
His Rams had not just beaten Kansas 71--61 that afternoon; they had taken the Jayhawks apart (much as they had scorched Big Ten power Purdue the previous weekend), attacking a team that likes to play fast by playing faster. They led by as many as 18 points in the first half and left the locker room for the second chanting, "One, two, three, kill!" In the tunnel entering the arena, they screamed, "We're going to whip their ass. One, two, three, Houston! Step on the gas, baby! We got it!" And 20 minutes later the Jayhawks' season was over.
Now Smart stood, cordoned off from the biggest part of the locker room by a screen on which he had shown pregame highlights of commentators disparaging the team's chances of winning, and was asked the simplest of questions: "Is this easily the best day of your life?"
"Best day of my life?" said Smart. "No." He smiled devilishly, a man with the world by the throat, at least for an instant. "These guys don't even know this," he said, looking around the small space at his assistants. "Best day of my life was a couple of months ago. I found out my wife is pregnant."
With that, the back room exploded in a hail of congratulatory shouts. Way to go, big fella! Come over here, man! Big guy's getting it done! Maya Smart, a Harvard graduate with a journalism degree from Northwestern, who works as a coach for freelance writers and married Shaka in 2006, is expecting the couple's first child in September. "He was the one who wanted to keep it a secret," Maya told SI. "I was like, I think people can tell." In any case, people can surely tell this: Smart and his Rams are on an ungodly roll.
That roll started in Madison, Wis., where Smart was raised, and it continued at Division III Kenyon (Ohio) College, where he set the school assist record (after turning his back on acceptances to Harvard, Yale and Brown so he could play). His first job in coaching was at California University of Pennsylvania, and his fifth stop, in 2008--09, was on Billy Donovan's staff at Florida. That's where VCU athletic director Norwood Teague found him. Teague was looking for a coach to replace Anthony Grant, who had left for Alabama after going 76--25 in three years.
Teague and Smart met for a 6 a.m. breakfast at the 43rd Street Deli and Breakfast House in Gainesville. They were the first people in the shop; Smart brought one document—his 31-page treatise on recruiting, which he wrote to explain his philosophy on the subject—and a roomful of optimism. "He stood out so much, I almost stopped the interview midway and said, 'Go back, get Maya, let's go,'" Teague said after Sunday's win. "He's one of the most upbeat, positive human beings I've ever met. He's the real deal."