Brandenberg providing spark at VCU

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke is the Big Ten Player of the Year and might be named National Player of the Year in two weeks. He’s a known commodity across college basketball, and Michigan’s NCAA tournament run that began Thursday night is going to last as long as Burke’s leadership and playmaking make it last.

All of this is fine with Rob Brandenberg, a less-heralded junior guard for the guys who will try to end that Michigan run Saturday afternoon.

VCU isn’t sneaking up on anybody, not anymore. But the Rams are still the underdog in this game, not just because they’re the No. 5 seed against the No. 4 Wolverines but because the game will be played at the Palace of Auburn Hills, about 50 miles from Michigan’s campus.

If you’re planning to watch, don’t blink. VCU-Michigan shapes up as maybe the most interesting game of the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 because VCU’s full-court-for-40-minutes pressure defense meets Burke and a Michigan offense that’s been scoring at a torrid pace almost all season long.

Michigan spent almost all season ranked in the top 10, playing in the rugged Big Ten and making headlines with its backcourt of Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. With seven NCAA tournament wins over the last three seasons, VCU won’t be intimated by the stage. And Brandberg certainly won’t be intimidated by the names on the Wolverine roster.

The last time Brandenberg was on a team that encountered Burke’s team in a tournament setting was three years ago, when both were in high school in the Columbus area. Burke was the point guard at Columbus Northland, which entered that Ohio Div. I regional final unbeaten and three wins from repeating as state champions. Jared Sullinger, who starred at Ohio State for two years and now plays for the Boston Celtics, was that team’s anchor.

Brandenberg’s Gahanna Lincoln team proved to be that team’s kryptonite.

Gahanna Lincoln ended up blowing Northland off the floor, led by Brandenberg’s 19 points and exclamation-point dunk during the deciding stretch. In Brandenberg’s official VCU bio, that game is noted as a “throttling of Columbus Northland, which was ranked

No. 1 in the country at the time.”

Clearly, it meant something to Brandenberg.

“It was the upset of upsets in Ohio,” Brandenberg said. “I just remember being motivated. They were the team to beat, the team everybody talked about. Jared was Mr. Basketball (in both 2009 and 2010; Burke won it as a senior in 2011) and they had two guys going to Ohio State and Trey. Whatever hype their team had was earned. They were great.”

Gahanna Lincoln used a full-court press to frustrate Northland that day, so in a way Brandenberg showed up at VCU in the fall of 2010 prepared. Playing time is earned at VCU by being able to play fast and play defense, and VCU coach Shaka Smart identified Brandenberg early in the recruiting process as a fit.

Brandenberg prefers to be announced before VCU games as being from Cincinnati; he moved to Gahanna before seventh grade. He ended up choosing VCU over Butler, Akron and Ohio.

Brandenberg has had a solid season at VCU, averaging 10.5 points and better than a steal a game. He was a part-time starter last season, when he averaged 9 points a game, scored in double figures 15 times and made the Colonial Athletic Association’s all-academic team. He played in 39 games and averaged 5 points per game as a freshman on VCU’s Final Four team.

That season forever changed VCU basketball. Winning an NCAA tournament game last year and joining the Atlantic 10 this season further raised the profile — and beating Michigan on Saturday would be another positive step in that direction. But the question of whether anything VCU does now should be considered an upset isn’t one Brandenberg wanted to touch.

With Burke and Michigan on the other side, he has enough on his plate.

“All that’s not for me to say,” Brandenberg said. “We’d like to be recognized. We want people to think we’re one of top programs in the country, but we’re going to stay hungry either way. We won’t get caught up in what’s an upset or who’s supposed to be winning these big games.

“We’re not into labels. We’re trying to win the next game.”