HOUSTON – The Final Four is the culmination of VCU’s efforts during the 2010-11 season – and also four Rams’ careers. For Ed Nixon, Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozell, a victory against Butler on Saturday will set the school record for victories. The trio is tied with T.J. Gwynn (2006-10) with 103.

The fourth senior, Jamie Skeen, transferred to VCU from Wake Forrest after the 2007-08 season.

And while Rodriguez may have burst onto the scene during March Madness, his time in the spotlight with VCU almost didn’t happen. When Shaka Smart was hired to replace Anthony Grant (76-25 from 2006-07 to 2008-09, including two NCAA tournament appearances), Rodriguez left the school with the intention of enrolling at Rollins College, near his home in Merritt Island, Fla.

 

“I think part of the reason [Rodriguez] left was the coaching change,” said Smart, who came to VCU from Florida after Grant left for Alabama. “The other part of it was Joey is very, very family-oriented, as family-oriented as anybody I know, and his family was all back in Florida. He wanted to be around them. I think after a few weeks of being at home, just before we were going to start summer school, his dad called and expressed an interest in coming back.

“As I’ve said many times,” Smart added, “I just had one conversation with Joey, and I said, ’We’d love to have you back, but I’ve got to know that you’re going to be in the circle with both feet.’ He said, ‘Coach, I will.’ And that was really the last we ever talked about it other than times it’s been brought up in the media.”

Smart also knew the pain of losing a coach. He went through the ordeal after his freshman year at Kenyon (Ohio) College, when Bill Brown left for California University of Pennsylvania. “I remember being 19 years old and sitting in my living room and crying, crying, crying because this man who was a father figure and a guy that I idolized had left,” Smart said. “It really turned my world upside down.

“I wanted to transfer, I wanted to change some things, and I didn’t because of the relationship that I had with my teammates.

“I think that experience helped me,” Smart said, “not only with Joey, but with all of our players, to sympathize and empathize with the fact that they were going through a coaching change.”

VCU's Journey to the Final Four

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.

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.

With his college career back on track, Rodriguez hit his stride – and neither he nor VCU has looked back. Smart moved Rodriguez to play point guard and the Rams’ “Havoc” offense has lived up to its billing.

“It’s almost live-by-the-3, die-by-the-3 for us,” junior Bradford Burgess said. “We have great shooters. Sometimes we have five guys out there that can all shoot the 3.”

Which means anyone can be the go-to player with the game on the line.

“All five guys on the court – or whoever has the ball,” Burgess said. “It’s usually Joey making a play for all of us. [But] if a guy has a shot … anybody on the court is capable of making the play.”

Last season, VCU won the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament, and this year the Rams were the Cinderella team of March Madness and are just one win from playing for the national championship. VCU faces Butler at 6 p.m. ET Saturday in the first semifinal game.

“It’s exciting,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’ve been the best team for these last two weeks – and now it’s proven; we’re in the Final Four. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and in each other.

“It’s going to be an exciting game [against Butler],” he added. “They’re a great team. We cannot look past them. They are probably one of the best teams we’ve played this year.”

Rodriguez again ranks among the national leaders in assists, with 5.1 per game (and more than 7 per contest in the NCAA tournament), and Smart knows the impact Rodriguez has made on the team.

“Would we be here today [without Rodriguez],” Smart asked. “I could make up some long answer, but no, we would not be here today.”