Shaka Smart and the full-court press goes hand-in-hand like PB&J; like dogs and bones; like basketballs and a hoop. Just the perfect pairing.
The all-wise crome dome of VCU took over a program that wasn’t a stranger to winning having gone for three-straight 20-plus win seasons under former coach Anthony Grant. Smart continued that tradition and added his own, very fun and infuriating, flavor.
VCU went 23-11 overall and 12-6 in the CAA — VCU has since moved to the A10. The Rams lost in the CAA title game, 70-65, to Old Dominion and had to sweat out Selection Sunday. But, thanks to a brand-spanking new addition, the Rams made it as part of the newly minted first-four.
A round made to get teams in that maybe wouldn’t have because of a myriad of reasons. Maybe a team stole the auto-bid in a traditionally one-bid league? Maybe a power conference just needed that seventh team to make it.
Well, in VCU’s case it sure worked out.
From First Four to Final Four they call it.
The Rams, led by a small-ball lineup that would make the nerds of basketball swoon: 5-10 Joey Rodriguez, 6-2 Brandon Rozzell, 6-4 Ed Nixon, 6-5 Bradford Burgess and 6-9 stretch center Jamie Skeen did the improbable.
Looking at the group, none pop out stats wise. Skeen led the scoring charge at a modest 15.7 followed by Burgess at 14.3 and three more with at least seven points per game. But, looking at more numbers, things start to make sense.
VCU’s top three scorers were efficient from deep hitting at least 39% and as a team the Rams at the 18th best steal rate, stopped the long ball by holding teams to just 33.6% while hitting 37% of their own deep balls. Turnovers and 3-balls. A recipe for success.
What made VCU’s run so special, in my opinion, is just who the Rams beat. The Rams took down BIG NAME programs like USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. Blue bloods. Dominant programs. The havok defense did not care.
The run started with a 59-46, first-four win over USC. Easy enough. On to the Round of 64 where the Rams beat Georgetown, the No. 6 seed in the Southwest, and it wasn’t close by a margin of 74-56 as the Rams forced a whopping 17 turnovers.
VCU followed up the abuse over Georgetown by derailing the Purdue Boilermakers engine in an even more lopsided, 94-76 domination. Sure same score but the Rams hung 94 on a team that never allowed over 70 TWICE all season.
VCU finished the Purdue game with 26 assists and four turnovers, and forced Purdue to make just seven miscues — but star E’Twaun Moore was held to a porous 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting
“A week ago, we thought we were done,” said Rodriguez, who had 12 points, 11 assists and no turnovers in 34 minutes in a postgame interview (via AP). “And now, we’re here in the Sweet 16. Anything can happen now.”
Anything you say?
It took OT, but the Rams did another improbable feat to down No. 10 seed Florida State. Onto No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Supposedly, one of the Morri (Morris) twins said of the Rams’ “The run ends here,” to which Rodriguez clapped back “We’ll see.”
Skeen scored 26, the Rams hit 12 3s — including 9 of 12 at halftime — and forced the Jayhawks into 14 turnovers and never really faltered in a 71-61 upset to take down the highest remaining seed in the tournament.
While the miracle ended against former Cinderalla Butler, the Rams of the 2011 season live on in our hearts.
Where are they now?
Smart is still coaching. He turned the dominance at VCU into a big-time gig at Texas but withered in six seasons despite putting up winning records in all but one season with three NCAA Tournament appearances. He is currently at Marquette.
Rodriguez is also a coach, now assisting the FIU men’s team.
Skeen is still hooping, most recently he played for Leuven Bears in Belgium. Brandon Rozzell plays for Keravnos B.C. in one of the Greek leagues. Bradford Burgess had a short pro career but it appears it has ended.