Confident Rams have grander plans than first-ever Sweet 16 berth
After barely making the tourney, VCU has shown it is capable of beating anyone
The Rams' cocksure coach, 33-year-old Shaka Smart, sets the tone for his team
VCU, on the heels of its first Sweet 16, will face No. 10 Florida State next week
CHICAGO -- This was not the Big Ten team's locker room. This was the Colonial Athletic Association team's locker room. And yet here was VCU forward Jamie Skeen, turning to two of his teammates and declaring nonchalantly of their fallen opponent: "They were scared." They seemed bewildered in fact by Purdue's defensive strategy. "They tried to press us," said Skeen. "They don't usually press. It didn't look like they even practice it."
So -- it really was as easy as it looked.
Virginia Commonwealth University is headed to the first Sweet 16 in school history after the 11th-seeded Rams -- a team that had to play an extra game just to make it to the main bracket -- pummeled third-seeded Purdue 94-76 on Sunday, their second rout of a BCS-conference opponent in three days here and their third tourney win (USC, Georgetown, Purdue) since Wednesday.
"We see those guys on TV all year and we say, 'We can play with these guys,'" said Rams point guard Joey Rodriguez. "We got a chance to go out and prove it."
Facing a veteran Big Ten team known for its stingy defense, the CAA runner-ups put on an offensive clinic, scoring 94 points against a team that had only allowed more than 76 once this season -- to No. 1 Ohio State. The Rams dished a staggering 26 assists against just four turnovers, led by Rodriguez's remarkable 11-to-0 stat line.
But defensively, the Rams also held star Boilermaker guard E'Twaun Moore to 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting and did not allow All-American big man JaJuan Johnson to get going until they'd already long since built an overwhelming lead.
"Those are great guys, All-Americans," said senior guard Brandon Rozzell. "But it takes five guys on a court to win a basketball game."
VCU raced to a 10-point halftime lead, 42-32. Purdue, a tourney-tested team playing in front of a mostly partial crowd, figured to make a comeback. Instead, the Rams came out and went for the jugular. With Rodriguez orchestrating the offense and his teammates setting all the right ballscreens along the perimeter, VCU got uncontested layups or dunks on six straight possessions near the start of the second half. Once Purdue tried to take that away, Rodriguez drilled a wide-open three-pointer to make it 59-44.
When Purdue called timeout at the 11:33 mark, after Rodriguez, who in the span of 25 seconds had fed Burgess for a backdoor layup, then, off a turnover, helped work the ball back around to him for another wide-open trey, VCU had built an astonishing 65-46 lead. As the teams went to their benches, Rodriguez looked up into the crowd, broke into a wide smile and pointed to his brother, Jeremy.
"At that point, I just kind of knew," he said. "This was going to happen."
If only the rest of us could have seen it coming.
No one that's watched VCU over the past five days could possibly doubt its abilities anymore. Athletically, there was no noticeable discrepancy between the Rams and Boilers. They don't have a JaJuan Johnson or E'Twaun Moore, but they do have Jamie Skeen, a sculpted 6-foot-9 forward that can both bang inside and drain three-pointers; a vintage pass-first point guard in the 5-foot-9 Rodriguez; and a whole bunch of guys -- Rozzell, 6-foot-6 swingman Bradford Burgess (who scored a team-high 23 points Sunday), 6-foot-4 shooting guard Ed Nixon -- that can run and press, knock down outside shots and get in your face.
But there's a reason the Rams found themselves so precariously on the bubble last Sunday. They offered a potential tease early in the season when they beat UCLA and lost a close game to Tennessee at the NIT Tipoff at Madison Square Garden; but then they lost four of their last five regular-season games to finish just 12-6 in-conference and 23-11 overall.
"VCU, during a certain time of the season, you wouldn't have seen what you just watched out there," dazed Purdue coach Matt Painter said afterward. "And then during another part of the season, you watch them in a four or five-game stretch, and you literally think they can beat anybody in the country. And that was an honest thought that I had before we played them. I made that statement. VCU can beat anybody in the country on a neutral court, and I believe that.
"I was hoping that that team didn't show up, but that team for VCU did show up."
Maybe it was getting everybody back healthy (Rozzell missed seven games with a broken hand). Maybe it was the fuel from all those critics that questioned their legitimacy.
Or, "In our conference, sometimes maybe we take some teams lightly," conceded Rodriguez.
The Rams play with a swagger instilled in them by their cocksure 33-year-old coach, Shaka Smart, who admits that he sometimes gives his players too much freedom on the court. They paid him off tenfold by executing beyond a coach's wildest dream Sunday.
"As terrific a job as we've done all year sharing the basketball, led by Joey," said Smart. "... I'm kind of at a loss for words because I don't think it's so much a reflection on Purdue. I think it's a reflection on our guys and how well they've executed what we try to do and how well Joey ran the show.
"I didn't think it would be this easy, but at the same time, I know what our guys have inside of them, and that's quite a bit."
In his press conferences and on the sideline this week, Smart has been the picture of cool -- but even he has his kryptonite. After he'd finished his on-court media interviews after the game, and before heading the locker room, he snuck in a few seconds at the bottom of VCU's cheering section. There, his mother, Monica King, wearing a VCU sweatshirt, was waiting with a hug for a guy just eight years removed serving as Dayton's director of basketball operations.
And that guy let out a nice, big cry.
He'd more than composed himself by the time he met the media about 20 minutes later. And he'd gone back to spreading the swagger. He was asked by a reporter about the fact his team had now achieved their preseason goal. The Rams had reached the Sweet 16, just as they'd written on a board in their locker room.
Was he worried his players might fall back to earth now?
"No, not with our group. ... These guys are hungry guys. Joey's nuts. He wants to win the whole thing, I guarantee you."