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VCU shows it belongs in NCAA tourney
The Rams, according to just about everyone except for bracketologist Jerry Palm, were on the outside looking in this past Sunday as the NCAA tournament committee announced this year's field of 68.
Senior forward Jamie Skeen was eating at Great Wraps on campus when his phone began buzzing and he was told VCU was going dancing.
Fellow senior guard Ed Nixon was in his room watching Johnny Test on the Cartoon Network when he heard teammate Rodriguez screaming.
None of this was supposed to happen.
"It's hard to absorb,” VCU athletic director Norwood Teague said after watching the Rams pound the you-know-what out of No. 6 Georgetown, 74-56.
The Rams were crucified by much of the national media immediately after their name was called on Selection Sunday, naming them as one of the final teams to earn a spot in the field as one of the tournament's final at-large teams.
"Anytime people disrespect you like that,” Rodriguez said. "It hurts.”
"Sure, it was motivation,” Smart added. "No doubt about it.”
VCU went out to Dayton and took care of USC in the First Four to earn a spot in the “real field.” Then they arrived in Chicago as an underdog and afterthought — especially with Georgetown’s leader and senior point guard
But the Rams dominated, virtually from start to finish.
Was Smart surprised by the decisive margin?
"No,” he said with a straight face.
Smart has made Teague and associate athletic director Mike Ellis look like a pair of geniuses, but these guys did their homework on the young, up-and-coming head coach.
While most athletic directors hire search firms to do their dirty work for him, the VCU brass does it by themselves. They started the Villa 7 a few years back and in conjunction with Nike, they have run a breeding ground for young assistant coaches.
It’s no coincidence that they have struck gold with both former coach Anthony Grant and Smart.
But Smart was on the outside looking in when Grant left for Alabama a couple years ago. Teague had a group of a half-dozen candidates and Smart entered the field as a 32-year-old longshot.
"He was a young guy I wasn’t sure about,” Teague admitted. "But when I was interviewing him, I almost told him in the middle of the interview to stop and come with me to Richmond. I knew. I just knew.”
"He's a special guy with incredible intelligence,” Teague added of Smart, who was hired after spending three years as an assistant at Akron, two at Clemson and one with Billy Donovan at Florida. "He’s a high-integrity guy who I knew could recruit.”
But Smart may not have been here — with two NCAA tournament wins under his belt three weeks before his 34th birthday — without some luck.
You see, Rodriguez was history shortly after Smart got the job. He had been recruited by Grant and didn’t want to start over with a coach he barely knew.
So he had decided to transfer to Division 2 Rollins College, which was 15 minutes from his home in Florida.
"He was gone,” Smart said.
"I was checked out,” Rodriguez admitted. "I came all the way here to play for Coach Grant. When he left, I was out of it.”
Rodriguez had decided to transfer to Rollins at the end of the semester, but remained at VCU to finish out academically. He still watched workouts and sometime in late-May, shortly after Rodriguez talked to his VCU teammates as well as former high school teammates Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons, Smart fielded a call from Rodriguez’ father.
His son wanted to return to the team.
"I didn’t think twice about it,” Smart said. "All I needed to know is that he was coming back with both feet in.”
Rodriguez hasn’t just returned, but he’s become what many thought he wasn’t. A year ago, he turned into a legitimate point guard. This season he became a leader.
And he and Smart have taken VCU a step away from the Sweet 16.
"It’s crazy,” Rodriguez said. "I think about it all the time.”
But Smart doesn’t look at it quite the same way.
"We knew we belonged,” Smart of his team’s inclusion in the field. "I knew I belonged — and Joey knew deep down be belonged.”
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