VCU’s run a sight to behold
CHICAGO – If you’re into buzzer-beaters, Virginia Commonwealth isn’t for you.
Controversial finishes? The Rams have none of them.
No. 11 seed VCU was content to kick tail all the way to its first Sweet 16 in San Antonio, the latest victim third-seeded Purdue 94-76 Sunday in a third-round Southwest Regional game at the United Center.
If you haven’t been paying attention, the Rams (26-11) are this season’s George Mason. They even hail from the same conference, the Colonial Athletic Association. And if they keep this up, they might prove to be even better than the famed 2006 Patriots.
“We’re not satisfied,” senior point guard Joey Rodriguez said. “We want to keep going. This is a great moment for tonight and a great moment for the university. But, you know, we have a lot more to do.”
With dead-eye shooters and an improving defense they have whipped their first three NCAA opponents – USC, Georgetown and Purdue – by an average of 16.3 points. They have knocked down 29 3-pointers in their three tournament victories and limited their opponents to 40.9 percent shooting.
And they show no signs of slowing down.
“I knew we had a group that was capable of winning,” second-year coach Shaka Smart said. “We just had to have everyone on the same page and everyone going in the same direction, and that’s what we’ve had the last three games.”
VCU has a plucky point guard in Rodriguez, who scored 12 points while collecting 11 assists against the Boilermakers. They have a bevy of scoring options, including junior swingman Bradford Burgess, senior forward Jamie Skeen and senior guard Brandon Rozzell.
Burgess played the star against Purdue (26-8), driving and dunking for 23 points while pulling down eight rebounds. Skeen had 13 points, knocking down 5-of-9 shots. Rozzell hit two 3-pointers en route to 10 points and four rebounds.
When the Rams get an opponent down, they have the swagger to step on their throats. Up 10 at the half against the Boilers, they weathered every Purdue counterpunch, trading baskets before finding their openings and building a 19-point lead on a 3-pointer by Burgess with 11:33 left. Purdue, despite 25 points from JaJuan Johnson and 20 from Ryne Smith, never got closer than 13 the rest of the way.
“We attacked them,” Rodriguez said. “Coach told us before the game to come in and attack them and play loose. That’s what we did.
“When guys pressure you, you don’t want to play on your heels. We didn’t. And when you have guys that can make shots like we do, that’s what’s going to happen.”
VCU has the hottest coach in the country in Smart, 33, smooth and cool and gaining admirers in the money-making March limelight.
It also has a chip on its shoulder after some ESPN pundits suggested the Rams didn’t belong in the tournament at all.
They’ll next meet 10th-seeded Florida State in the San Antonio on Friday and have given us no reason to believe they can’t take care of the Seminoles the same way they’ve destroyed the Trojans, Hoyas and Boilermakers.
This is the team of the moment, one that has gelled at the perfect time to grab the magic of March and run with it.
“I think we lost focus sometimes on the road [earlier this season] and against certain opponents,” Burgess said. “But I think this time around with our second chance, we’ve had an extreme amount of focus and determination to win games and play our style of play.”
Seeing the camaraderie as the team gathered at center court to sing, dance and sway arm-in-arm while mugging for the camera was a sight to behold.
It’s a sight we might be seeing a lot more of this month.