RICHMOND, Va. -- When Larry Sanders was a freshman in high school, he was into art, obsessed with drawing cartoons like the ones he read in the Sunday papers. He was not into basketball. "I didn't feel like I was any good at it, and didn't like getting made fun of," he said, "so I just didn't play." When he was lured onto the JV team as a 10th-grader at Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High, he had an inauspicious debut, scoring on the wrong basket in his first game. He didn't play AAU until after his junior year, when he was 6-foot-6, and was contacted by just two schools -- Western Carolina and VCU -- before committing to the Rams. They liked him as an athletic project; he followed college hoops so sparingly that he was unsure what he was even committing to play. "I didn't know the CAA from the SEC," he said, "and when somebody asked me, are you going D-I, I was like, is that the highest division?"
Sanders, now a 6-10 sophomore starter for VCU, no longer has much time for drawing -- especially not at present, with the Rams having clinched a trip to the NCAA tournament with a 71-50 win over George Mason in Monday's Colonial Athletic Association tournament final. VCU is dance-bound, in part, because Sanders has become quite good at basketball, almost in a cartoonish way. Against the Patriots he used his superhuman 7-7 wingspan to score 18 points, block seven shots and break a CAA tournament record with 20 rebounds. The previous record-holder was none other than The Admiral, David Robinson, who pulled down 19 for Navy in 1986.
One NBA scout told me this week that "Sanders has the longest arms I've seen, anywhere," and this was not hyperbole: The wingspan of the NCAA's top shot-blocker, Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, is just 7-4, and Ohio State's Dallas Lauderdale, another sub-7-footer renowned for his swatting skills, checks in at 7-5. Sanders was a one-man wrecking crew in the post against the Patriots, out-blocking their entire team, out-rebounding their entire starting lineup, and helping hold them to just 30.5 percent shooting. "The team that executes on the defensive end normally controls the game," said Mason coach Jim Larranaga, "and they've got a guy in Larry Sanders that can eliminate a lot of easy buckets."
When Sanders arrived on campus in the summer of 2007 -- the offseason after Eric Maynor stunned Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament and made VCU a national story -- Maynor called his father, George, and told him about an unheralded post prospect that had just joined the team. George said, "I remember Eric telling me, "This kid has some serious talent, as long as he works at it. He can rebound like crazy.'"
Sanders went from averaging 4.9 points and 5.2 boards as a freshman, when the Rams were upset in the second round of the CAA tournament and missed the NCAAs, to averaging 11.2 points and 8.0 boards as a sophomore, and was named the CAA's Defensive Player of the Year. He pulled down 12 of his 20 boards in the first half on Monday as VCU ran out to a 30-19 lead, and made emphatic statements with dunks on the offensive end. The jam he had at the 16:09 mark in the first half -- finished off with a nearly technical-worthy twist -- jarred the standard so much that it was still swaying by the time Mason brought the ball back over halfcourt.
VCU's student section stormed the court at Richmond Coliseum with such a vengeance that there were kids beyond the top of the key before the buzzer even sounded, and the refereeing crew broke into a dead sprint for the dressing room. As students swarmed the entire team in the center of the floor, and signs acknowledging the CAA championship were plastered over each backboard, a man on the periphery of the mob held up a homemade banner that read, LARRY SANDERS HAS A POSSE.
At the very least, in Sanders and Maynor, the team leader who had 25 points and eight assists to win MVP honors, the Rams have something that no other mid-major in the dance can offer: two legitimate first-round NBA prospects. And this should strike fear in the hearts of the Nos. 5 or 6 seeds (if our projected bracket is correct) that VCU might be matched up with on Selection Sunday. When you're a major-conference team about to land a seed in the dangerous 4-5-6 territory -- otherwise known as Upsetville -- your hope is that the mid-major you're paired with doesn't have 1) substantive NCAA tournament experience or 2) guards who can get hot and create Cinderella moments. You're not expecting a scenario in which your mid-major opponent actually has tournament experience, a star guard and more pro-level talent than you do. But for all the teams on our No. 6 line -- LSU, Illinois, Cal and Marquette -- this would be the case.
Maynor, who's projected to be a first-round pick in June, said he feels that Sanders, who's just now appearing on scouts' radar and might be draft-worthy in 2010 or '11, is only beginning to scrape the surface of his potential. The way Sanders has come on of late, with double-doubles in four of VCU's past six games, it's possible that he could be on the verge of joining Maynor as a household name in big dance lore.
"I tell him all the time, he's special," Maynor said of Sanders. "I try to stay in his ear, and when I saw him start grabbing all those rebounds, I said, you're not going to get in trouble for grabbing 20 tonight." No one would ever make fun of Sanders for doing that.