Fast and loose, VCU cruising to Final Four

Our time. Right now.

That is the rallying cry Virginia Commonwealth University has

adopted during its basketball team’s improbable nothing-to-lose,

everything-to-gain run to the Final Four.

The Rams are having blast and their confidence is growing with

each win.

”It comes from our personalities and coach (Shaka) Smart,”

forward Bradford Burgess said. ”He wants us to be out there loose

and confident and aggressive. We’re out there playing with nothing

to lose. It’s just been a fun ride and I think we showed how much

fun we can have on the court every game.”

The urban university once viewed as a mostly commuter school has

toppled some of the college game’s elite programs.

The Rams earned their way to this weekend’s semifinals in

Houston with a 71-61 victory against mighty Kansas on Sunday in a

game that rarely was as close as the final score.

The Jayhawks led 6-0 early, and the Rams didn’t flinch.

”We kept our composure and hit ’em right back,” point guard

Joey Rodriguez said.

Smart, who has become one of the hottest names in coaching in

only his second season, now boasts a 10-0 career record in

postseason play; VCU went 5-0 to win the CBI last season.

But this year’s success seemed unlikely when they finished 3-5

in February, and showed up at the Colonial Athletic Association

tournament thinking they had to win it to make the NCAA field.

Turns out they won just enough.

VCU used a buzzer-beater from Jamie Skeen in the quarterfinals

to slip past Drexel, and then played one of their best games to

oust regular season champion George Mason, 79-63.

Though they lost to Old Dominion in the championship, Smart

sensed something different, and hearing their unexpected at-large

bid blasted by commentators has only fueled their run.

”We knew that we had turned the corner as a team and that we

were playing much better,” Smart said, referring to the Rams’ win

that ended George Mason’s 16-game winning streak. And though he was

unsure if VCU would get in, Smart said the Rams ”felt like if we

got the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, we could

certainly make a run.”

It is how they are doing it on that run that is really turning

heads.

Only Florida State, beaten on Burgess’ layin with 7 seconds left

in overtime, has been close against the Rams’ pressing defense and

43.8 percent postseason 3-point shooting.

Southern Cal lost by 13. Georgetown and Purdue by 18 each. And

Kansas by 10.

Now, Burgess said, the Rams feel there is nothing they can’t

do.

”As the wins kept coming, we’ve gained more confidence and

we’ve just been saying, ‘We don’t want this ride to end,”’ he

said. ”Getting to Houston, why not try to go and win two

games?”

The Rams (28-11) face Butler (27-9) in the semifinals on

Saturday night. The Bulldogs lost to Duke in the national

championship game last season, but the Rams won’t be

intimidated.

”We just have a lot of belief in each other,” Rodriguez said.

”We believe in our skills and whatever coach teaches us and we go

out there and perform. We’re not scared of anybody.”

And the tournament has shown they don’t need to be afraid with

the cast they bring:

Skeen, who transferred after two seasons at Wake Forest, was the

most outstanding player of the Southwest regional after scoring 26

points against the Morris twins, Marcus or Markieff.

Rodriguez, the team’s steady, unquestioned leader, started his

career playing alongside Eric Maynor – now with the NBA’s Oklahoma

Thunder – for former VCU coach Anthony Grant. Rodriguez was so

upset when Grant left for Alabama that he almost transferred.

Then there are Burgess and Brandon Rozzell, both Richmond

products who have the ability to take over on offense with their

outside scoring, but have impacted games besides scoring.

There’s Ed Nixon, the defensive stopper with a knack for making

big shots.

And of course, there’s Smart, 33, who looks too young on the

sidelines with his shaved head and discarded jacket to be in

charge. However, he has masterfully manipulated his team’s air of

confidence to motivate them with pointed reminders of how people

doubted them.

”We’ve been able to flip all the negative things that people

have said and the naysayers and some of that doubt, and we’ve been

able to use that as motivation, and the only reason we’ve been able

to use it is because we have a very naturally confident team,”

Smart said.

The coach said before every game they’ve shown clips of

different analysts picking VCU’s opponent to win.

”If we didn’t have a really confident group, that would be

paralyzing because our guys would see that and think, ‘Oh no, maybe

we can’t do that,”’ Smart said. ”But I know with our group,

that’s not a problem.”

Smart can use being disrespected to his advantage now, though he

was weary of disappointment demoralizing his team when at-large

bids were being announced. He didn’t even gather his team together

to watch for fear they would be left out.

Five wins later, the victory against Kansas stands as the

biggest in school history. So when about 5,000 students gathered

early Monday morning to welcome the team home, Smart had news for

them.

”Here’s the best part,” he told them. ”We ain’t done

yet.”