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USC basketball: O'Neill not surprised by Virginia Commonwealth's Final Four run

March 28, 2011 |  4:37 pm

Virginia Commonwealth has made one of the most improbable runs in NCAA tournament history, going from "First Four" to Final Four, from playing in Dayton, Ohio, to Chicago to San Antonio and, finally, to Houston, where the 11th-seeded Rams will face eighth-seeded Butler in a national semifinal Saturday.

Throughout that run, the Rams, who hail from the Colonial Athletic Assn., have knocked off, in order, teams from the Pacific 10, Big East, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences, including blue-blood powers such as Georgetown and, on Sunday in the Southwest Regional final, top-seeded Kansas.  

Many of the national talking heads who so fervently bashed the idea that VCU -- which finished fourth in its league and lost four of five heading into its conference tournament that it didn't even win -- could earn an at-large bid are now eating heaping helpings of crow with plenty of humble pie for dessert.

Then again, anyone who had the Rams going far in their bracket must have been a VCU student, such as this guy.  Everyone else, well, their brackets are just plain ruined, says ESPN. Oklahoma City Thunder star forward Kevin Durant even tweeted that his pool was devoid of VCU-to-Final-Four picks. 

But USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, whose Trojans were VCU's first victims in the tournament way back on March 16, is hardly surprised with the Rams' accomplishments. 

"There's nothing magical about what they're doing," he said by phone Monday. "They're good."

There was plenty of concern among USC's coaching staff before the Trojans faced VCU that the Rams were a dangerous team, with underrated players such as point guard Joey Rodriguez and forward Jamie Skeen and a chip on their shoulder that would become strong motivation. Those fears played out in full.

After the game, many Trojans fans considered it a bad loss, but that probably isn't the case after VCU has knocked off every other team it has played and stands just two wins from a national title. 

"Well, to me, our perception should be shaped by one thing," O'Neill said. "We got into the NCAA tournament in the second year of major sanctions. That just doesn't happen. To me, that loss wasn't a bad loss even at the time. I was just proud to be in the tournament."

In other USC basketball news, senior forward Alex Stepheson has been invited to two pre-NBA draft events in which he'll be able to showcase his skills before NBA scouts and officials.

The first is the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches All-Star game Friday in Houston's Reliant Stadium, the site of the Final Four. Stepheson, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound former North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake High standout who averaged 9.8 points and 9.2 rebounds this season, was also invited to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, April 6-9 in Portsmouth, Va. 

-- Baxter Holmes

Photo: VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez drives to the basket against USC forward Alex Stepheson during their NCAA tournament first-round game. Credit: Associated Press