Unflappable, at least for now
Cinderella Rams arrive in Houston relaxed, ready to play
HOUSTON -- They fought too hard to earn a spot at center stage to slink away now.
"Coach kind of warned us how crazy it would be,'' Virginia Commonwealth guard Joey Rodriguez said Thursday, grinning from ear to ear. "I just kinda shot a music video. That was nuts, but it's been fun.''
Never mind that Reliant Stadium, where VCU plays Butler in Saturday's first semifinal, holds 10 times as many fans as the Rams' Siegel Center back home in Richmond, Va. Or that the attention from the national media sometimes resembles speed-dating, with rapid-fire questions flying in every direction.
"I don't think it affects us at all,'' guard Brandon Rozzell said of the extra responsibilities this week. ``If anything, it's kind of team bonding.''
Fellow seniors Rodriguez, Ed Nixon and Jamie Skeen agree.
"We know what we're getting ourselves into,'' Nixon said. "This game is just like another game. Of course, it has a bigger stage, but we've got to play it like it's just another game.''
There are, however, still two days before the 11th-seeded Rams (28-11) play No. 8 Butler (27-9).
"I think once we take that bus ride on game day it will, or practice here with the open practice it will be a little surprising, shocked about what we're really into,'' Rozzell said. ``I think no one is shell-shocked yet about how important this is. It hasn't sunk in yet.''
HOW THEY GOT HERE: No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth beat No. 11 Southern California 59-46; No. 6 Georgetown 74-56; No. 3 Purdue 94-76; No. 10 Florida State 72-71, OT; No. 1 Kansas 71-61.
STAR: Joey Rodriguez is a true college point guard, and his numbers in the NCAA tournament bear that out. The 5-foot-10 Rodriguez is averaging 10.1 points in the tournament, but his impressive numbers are 38 assists and 10 turnovers in that span. In the Rams' win over Purdue, he had 12 points, 11 assists and no turnovers. He is comfortable directing the offense in the halfcourt, but he also does a good job of getting the ball to the right man on the break.
COACH: Shaka Smart burst onto the national scene with the Rams' Final Four run. In his second season as a head coach, the 33-year-old Smart already has become a candidate for every Division I opening, and his season isn't even over yet. He has solid credentials as an assistant having worked under Billy Donovan at Florida and Oliver Purnell at Clemson. He won 27 games in his first season, and the Rams won the CBI.
KEY POINT: The Rams came into the tournament with a chip on their shoulder after so many said they didn't deserve to be in the field, even one expanded by three teams. VCU has already won five games, something that would get a team to the title game in past years. What's been most impressive is that only one win has been by less than 10 points, and that was an overtime victory against Florida State.
And if it does, the Rams will take care of it.
"If anyone's uptight on the court or in the locker room, we notice it,'' Rozzell said.
And easily fix it.
"We'll pick on them until they start smiling and laughing,'' he said. "If a guy is sitting there with his head down after making a bad play, we're going to joke about. I think that's one of the things that helps us out. We know each other, and we know what helps each other best.''
No one, it seems, is looser than Rodriguez. It helps that he clearly has fun on the floor and doesn't mind telling the story over and over about how he almost transferred when Anthony Grant left to take the Alabama job and Smart was hired. He pretty much rolls with it all.
In some ways, the attention is just on a larger scale of how things have been in Richmond, Va.
About 5,000 fans were waiting at 1:30 a.m. in the Siegel Center when the team returned from San Antonio having finished off Kansas.
More than one thousand waited more than an hour on Wednesday for the team to emerge from the arena and board a bus for the airport, holding signs and screaming to show their appreciation.
The impact has come in little ways, too.
Skeen, a sociology major, said his sociology professor tailored a class to have it be about basketball and sociology, and that he participated more that day than he ever had before.
"I kept raising my hand and answering all the questions,'' he said.
And Bradford Burgess, only of only two starters who will return next season, said he made a bad miscalculation on campus earlier in the week.
"I tried to walk through the bookstore when the Final Four shirts came out, which was a mistake because I was in there for like an hour, hour and a half just trying to sign autographs and shake hands,'' Burgess said. ``It's definitely been crazy.''
Getting back onto the floor for a game, he added, might seem like a return to normal.
"We're still a team playing, you know, with nothing to lose, and it's definitely been a great experience, but we're coming in to win a ball game and then to win another ball game,'' he said.
``Us staying focused, we'll be all right.''