Spiders, Rams make Richmond City of Hoops

RICHMOND, Va. — Rally over here, rally over there, rallies planned all around Richmond as the city embraces having two teams advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.

Take a bow Richmond and VCU.

The Spiders and Rams have made Richmond the first city since 2007 to send two teams — UCLA and USC advanced out of Los Angeles — to the round of 16 in the same year. And Richmond also boasts the same number of teams left in the tournament as the Big East.

Both teams depart today to San Antonio and Richmond's own canal walk will be the site of a community pep rally. The celebration will be highlighted by the unfurling of a huge banner showing television commentator Dick Vitale preparing to eat crow.

"We wanted to poke a little fun at him because he was so wrong about our city," said Jack Berry, executive director of Venture Richmond, an economic development group focused of promoting downtown. He said the image will show Vitale holding a plate of crow with the words "Eat Crow Baby."

Vitale and other basketball experts lambasted the NCAA selection committee for including VCU in the field ahead of other teams they deemed more worthy.

In response, the Rams have gone on an impressive NCAA tournament run, beating three schools from power conferences by an average of better than 16 points. VCU plays Florida State on Friday night, after Richmond takes on Kansas.

The atmosphere at VCU is much different than it was a few weeks ago, after the Rams lost five of eight games in February, seemingly dashing their NCAA tournament hopes. When they failed to win the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, fans wished them luck in the NIT.

"It's been crazy, everybody beeping their horns and people congratulating you and stuff," point guard Joey Rodriguez said after he returned to campus from the Rams' stunningly dominant victories in Chicago. "A couple of weeks ago, they were like, what are these guys doing?"

Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones said he expects a huge turnout for the rally, and he was still working Tuesday night hoping to arrange travel to San Antonio so he can support the teams.

"I would like nothing more than to be there," he said.

The schools intend to transport students to the rally after the fans gather to see their team off, and there will be free t-shirts celebrating the tandem handed out at the celebration.

The university presidents will ride up the canal in boats decorated in their school colors to a dock for the pep rally, and they will be greeted by Mayor Dwight C. Jones and a band.

"It's not San Antonio," Berry said, "but we have canal boats, too."

Right now, VCU and Richmond own the city. During the season, Richmond belonged to the Spiders.

In the annual meeting of the teams, the Spiders rolled on their home court, 72-60. They led by as many as 30 and ended a 6-year losing streak to the Rams. But that was on Dec. 11.

If they meet again this weekend, the winner would advance to the Final Four.

"It's really interesting to be a city that has two schools not only in the Sweet 16 of the same tournament, but in the same region," Richmond forward and city native Justin Harper said. "We could potentially end up playing each other down the road if we both continue to take care of business. I think it's pretty cool."

Harper isn't getting ahead of himself, pointing out, "We need to focus on Kansas first."

But the rivals will be be pulling for each other in Texas.

"Even though they're a big rival of ours, after we get done playing them, we pull for Richmond all year long," Rams coach Shaka Smart said. "People are going to talk about for a long, long time: 'Hey, 2011, that was the year that the Rams and the Spiders went to the Sweet 16' and who knows what else? Maybe we'll play in the elite 8. That would be phenomenal."

Unless you are, for instance, the mayor.

"I don't know what I'm going to do if they end up playing each other," Jones said. "That's going to be pretty dicey."

The schools — about 6 miles apart — could hardly be more different.

VCU is the second-largest public university in Virginia, with an enrollment of 23,483 undergraduates and a seemingly ever-expanding campus in the urban heart of the capital city.

The University of Richmond is a private liberal arts university with 3,048 undergraduates and a lake in the center of a campus dominated by stately brick buildings and towering trees.

Before they return to their own sides of the fence, should both teams win Friday night fans of both will come together to enjoy something that may never happen again.

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