Rodriguez leading way for Rams in tournament

Joey Rodriguez had just finished saying, without flinching, that

he believes VCU can win the national championship when someone

challenged him.

Undaunted, Rodriguez refused to back down.

That’s just not the scrappy point guard’s way – and why the

surprising Rams will continue to look toward him to lead the way in

the Final Four.

”There’s only four teams and from what we’ve done in the

tournament, we think we’ve been the most dominant team, so there’s

no doubt in our minds that we could win this whole thing,” he

said. ”It’s crazy to say it, but if you look back on all of our

games and how we’ve performed, I think you could say if you compare

us with the other teams, we’re the most dominant one.”

He has a point.

The Rams (28-11) played in the ”First Four,” beating Southern

Cal 59-46, and so have one more victory in this tournament than the

other three participants. They have several blowouts, too, having

beaten teams from five power leagues by an average of 12.2

points.

Rodriguez is at the center of it all, coach Shaka Smart

said.

”We’ve got a group that really believes and is playing with a

great deal of poise right now, and it starts with Joey as our point

guard and as our leader,” Smart said. ”Joey’s a guy, and you can

call it ‘little man syndrome’ or ‘Napoleon’s complex’ or whatever

you want to call it, but he’s a guy that is willing to take on

anybody – anybody – and believes that he can win.”

Smart’s coaching style surely helps. While Rodriguez has a knack

for making big plays, he’s also prone to looking terrible at times,

especially when shooting the ball.

When the Rams stunned Kansas 71-61 to reach the Final Four, he

demonstrated both sides.

”He comes off a ball screen and they go underneath and he’s 25

feet from the hoop. He’s wide open, and I’m yelling ‘Shoot it’ –

and I did yell ‘Shoot it’ on Sunday – and he air-balled the first

one,” Smart said. ”Then he came off again and I said, ‘Shoot it

again’ and he swished it.”

On a team shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point territory and

averaging nearly 11 3s per game in the tournament, Rodriguez’

biggest role besides providing leadership has been

distributing.

”He has so much basketball IQ, it’s insane,” 7-foot freshman

D.J. Haley said. ”It seems like he always knows where everybody is

on the court, and off the court, he always makes sure you’re doing

OK. He’s a great example of a leader.”

And a player.

Rodriguez has 38 assists to 10 turnovers through five tournament

games. He had 11 assists and 12 points when the Rams beat Purdue,

and 10 assists when they beat Florida State. The last of those was

a feed from under the basket to Bradford Burgess for the winning

layup in overtime.

And afterward? Rodriguez was already looking ahead to top-seeded

Kansas.

”Cinderella gets the only No. 1 seed left,” he said. ”You

couldn’t ask for more.”

Before the opening tip against the Jayhawks, as the captains met

at center court, one of the Kansas players looked at Rodriguez and

told him ”Your run ends here,” Rodriguez said.

”I said, we’ll see,” he recalled.

After falling behind 6-0, the Rams found their stride. They

built an 18-point lead before halftime, withstood a second-half

charge and pulled away.

Rodriguez said their no-fear approach is easily explained.

”We weren’t supposed to be there,” he said, a reference to TV

commentators’ harsh criticism of the Rams making the field. ”If we

would have lost in the Elite Eight, if we would have lost in the

Sweet 16, if we would have lost to USC, we weren’t supposed to be

there.

”But we expect more out of ourselves,” he said, ”and we just

don’t want it to end.”

For Rodriguez, it’s an ending that seemed unlikely when Anthony

Grant left two years ago to become the head coach at Alabama.

Grant, it turns out, had a long history with the guard.

”I’ve known Joey since he was probably in fourth or fifth

grade,” Grant said this week in New York, where the Crimson Tide

will play Wichita State for the NIT title Thursday night.

Rodriguez, a Florida native, was a regular at Florida camps when

Grant was there.

”Joey’s always been a great competitor,” Grant said. ”I

believe they played in either three or four state championship

games throughout his high school career, so he’s a winner.

Certainly he had a great impact on our team from the day he walked

on campus, so really happy for him and proud of him with what he’s

accomplished.”

Throughout the tournament, the Rams have been motivated by

people doubting them.

Now, just two wins from national championship, Rodriguez wonders

if the doubters have been silenced. Perhaps they realize the Rams

are loose, but determined to bring home a trophy.

”It seems,” he said, ”that by now they should know.”

AP Sports Writer Mike Fitzpatrick in New York contributed to

this story.