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