Bruiser Flint has been text messaging with Shaka Smart. Jim Larranaga has been reliving one of his best memories, and Blaine Taylor has wondered, however briefly, 'What if?'
VCU's improbable run to the Final Four has stirred emotions throughout the Colonial Athletic Association, and the league coaches watching it happen hope it will impact the conference for years to come.
Larranaga, whose 14th season at George Mason included a first-round NCAA victory against Villanova, was in the shoes of Smart, the Rams' second-year coach, five seasons ago. Larranaga's Patriots beat Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to become the first CAA team to reach the Final Four in 2006.
"It was more fun than anybody can possibly imagine," Larranaga said. "It's the highlight of any coach's career, if you're not at an institution where you can plan on getting to the Final Four every couple of years. If you're at Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky, maybe it's something you just expect, but at just about every other school, especially a mid-major, it's a thrill of a lifetime."
Mason's historic run didn't just benefit the Patriots, either.
"The recruiting was totally different," said Flint, Drexel's head coach. "When you walked in somebody's home, you didn't have to explain who the teams were in the CAA."
VCU's Final Four run is already having a similar impact.
"Some of the kids we've been recruiting are certainly much more aware of our conference because of what VCU has done," said James Madison coach Matt Brady, whose Dukes beat the Rams 72-69 in Feb. 24's regular-season finale.
At William and Mary, "I've had high school and college buddies call and say, 'Your league must be pretty good,' " coach Tony Shaver said. "I say, 'Guys, that's the fourth-place team in our league.' "
The Rams finished fourth in the CAA regular season, losing four of their last five games. But a 79-63 upset of Mason in the tournament semifinals, behind 21 points from 6-foot-9 senior forward Jamie Skeen, served some notice of what was to come.
"Skeen's stepping out shooting the ball now. That's something I didn't see earlier in the season or even a month ago," said Shaver, whose team trailed the Rams by two points with seven seconds left in a 59-55 loss at VCU in Dec. 4's CAA opener. " It just shows you how much equality there is, and you're not that far away sometimes."
Taylor's Old Dominion team beat VCU for its second straight conference tournament title and 27-win season and went into a first-round matchup with Butler, the team VCU will face in Saturday's Final Four, with much buzz. But a last-second layup by the Bulldogs off a loose ball scramble sent the Monarchs, who beat Notre Dame in last year's first round, home to watch the Rams' run.
"It's hard for kids, coaches, fans to not look at that and go, 'Gosh,' " Taylor said. "(But) sometimes you've got to step past competition a little bit and root for people. I like the (VCU) kids and I like the coaches. It's not a problem for us."
Flint's Dragons were part of the Rams' late-season skid, beating VCU 64-60 on Feb. 23.
"When you play VCU, you've got to make them play at a different tempo," Flint said. "You can't run up and down and let them set up their pressure. No team in the tournament has been able to stop them from doing that."
Not Southern California, which lost to the Rams 59-46 in a play-in game. Not Georgetown, which fell 74-56 in the NCAA first round, nor Purdue, 94-76 losers in the second, nor Florida State, edged 72-71 in overtime in the Sweet 16. And not Kansas, the last No. 1 seed standing until VCU's 71-61 Elite Eight win on Sunday.
"I didn't think we'd have a team in the Final Four, but I thought our league would do well in the NCAA tournament," Flint said.
Smart money though, was on that success coming from CAA regular-season champion Mason, which ended the regular season 25-5 and ranked No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, or ODU -- not a VCU team that received a much-decried at-large bid with a 23-11 record.
"I didn't think it would be VCU," Brady said. "I thought they deserved to get in, but I didn't think they were equipped to do what they're doing.
" I think Old Dominion, with a bounce of the ball, would have been in the Sweet 16, and I think if George Mason had played just about anybody else in the second round (besides No. 1 overall seed Ohio State), they would have been in the Sweet 16. I think we have three teams that could have done it. To me, that's even more impressive than one team making an unbelievable, unforeseeable run to the Final Four."
Like this year's Rams, the Patriots heard the doubters while awaiting their at-large selection in 2006.
"I muted the TV and said, 'I know all of you guys have heard the experts predict that we're not going to get in,' " Larranaga said. " 'I don't want you to believe them. The experts have never seen you play. They don't know how good you are. I'm telling you we're one of the best teams in the country and we're going to get a chance to prove it.'
"(Smart) has basically sent the same message to his team, that the experts don't believe in you, but we need to believe in ourselves."
Flint hopes the Rams' run translates into increased respectability for the CAA, which also has VCU's first-round upset of Duke in 2007 to its recent NCAA credit.
"We've always, as a conference, fought for respect," Flint said. "We should be a two- or three-bid league every year. We've had those types of teams, we've had that type of talent, we've had some good coaches, but we've fought to do that. I think this legitimizes it a little bit."
Larranaga, whose team jump-started that process five seasons ago, agrees.
"More and more people are beginning to realize how good this conference is," he said. "It's the first time in conference history that we had three teams (in the NCAA), but I believe it won't be the last time. This league is proving itself in postseason play."