Confident VCU still carrying its edge
March, 19, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- Hours before Virginia Commonwealth took the floor to play No. 6 seed Georgetown on Friday, coach Shaka Smart gathered his players for a prepared video session.
It wasn't for extra, last-minute film study. It wasn't an impromptu team movie to lighten the tone. And it wasn't home footage of a family trip to Disneyland.
No, to hear Smart describe it, VCU's pregame video session was a fiery mix between motivational seminar and George Orwell's Two Minutes Hate.
"Today, before we had lunch, we sat down and watched a video of Joe Lunardi saying we couldn't guard him," Smart said. "He said over and over in the video, they can't guard me, they can't guard me. We were showing clips of Chris Wright and Austin Freeman and Jason Clark."
Smart watched as his players responded. He liked what he saw.
"They don't like it," Smart said. "They don't like it. They grit their teeth, and they -- you know, you can see them ready to kind of fight back. That's what we're looking for."
If that sounds a bit over the top, well, it is. But it's hard to argue with the result.
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastVCU limited Austin Freeman to 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting in Georgetown's loss.
On Sunday, VCU was one of two at-large tournament inclusions that many believed didn't belong in the field of 68. Two days later, the Rams knocked off USC and then polished off one of the more impressive wins of this young NCAA tournament, a 74-56 thrashing of No. 6-seed Georgetown in the final game of Chicago's first-round action.
Few lines are as overused in sports as "no one believed in us," but maybe there's a reason coaches seem to trot out that old cliché so frequently. Maybe, just maybe, it's the added edge those teams need.
At the very least, it can't hurt. Clearly, this VCU team wears it with pride.
"Any time people disrespect you, especially on national TV, it kind of hurts you a little bit," said Rams point guard Joey Rodriguez. "We had an opportunity to come out here and prove people wrong. Hopefully we keep it going. That's really it."
Whether they're proving people wrong is up for debate. After all, the Selection Sunday surprise at VCU's inclusion was never about whether the Rams could play. It was about whether their accomplishments were more impressive than those of a handful of teams left out of the tournament. VCU's pre-tournament résumé won't change no matter how far the Rams go in this tournament, and that's one reason all this talk about bubble disrespect is a little overblown.
Still, if these "haters" remain, they don't have much ammunition in the chamber. VCU was peerless in victory Friday night.
The Rams pressured Georgetown from the opening tip, forcing the Hoyas guards to avoid traps and rush the ball up the floor, and as a result Georgetown never settled into any sort of rhythm. Shots began clanging off the rim -- Georgetown was 1-of-12 from beyond the arc in the first half -- and turnovers began piling up. Virginia Commonwealth capitalized on the other end, shooting 12-of-25 from 3-point range. By the time the first half was over, VCU had built an 11-point lead.
After the break, the Rams only extended that margin. With 17:12 left, Brandon Rozzell added one of his six 3-pointers -- Rozzell went 6-of-10 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points -- and backcourt mate Bradford Burgess followed up with two 3s of his own. Georgetown fans expecting their team to solidify in the second half, to calm down and close the gap, instead found the Hoyas flailing. VCU's lead was now 18 points. Georgetown would never recover.
It was another bitter postseason end for Hoyas coach John Thompson III. For the second straight season, Thompson's team lost to a double-digit seed in the team's first game of the NCAA tournament. This time, the loss ended the careers of guards Freeman and Wright, two of the best Hoyas of recent vintage who were never able to demonstrate their ability on the sport's largest stage.
Wright and Freeman shot a combined 6-of-27 Friday night, including an 0-of-13 mark from the 3-point line.
Asked to discuss the Hoyas' recent struggles in tournament play, Thompson instead focused on Wright and Freeman. The coach struggled to contain his emotion.
"A lot will be discussed about this group and what they have and haven't done in the postseason," he said. "We'll evaluate that. Right now my thoughts are just with the four seniors that will be wearing a Georgetown University jersey for the last time. And that hurts. That hurts to see them go. That hurts them."
The shell-shocked Hoyas were clearly in agony, but on the other end of the arena, VCU's locker room was brimming with joy. It was clear these Rams weren't just playing with an edge. They're playing with supreme confidence, too.
"I'm very confident in my team," Rozzell said. "When we play our brand of basketball, I feel like we can compete with any team in the country. We can create any margin on the court."
Smart was asked if he was surprised by the Rams' dominance -- whether he really doubted that VCU could hang an 18-point win on a full-strength Georgetown team. His response, simply, was "no."
That swagger will be tested soon. On Sunday, the Rams will play 3-seed Purdue, a superior team to the Hoyas. Purdue coach Matt Painter sat on press row for much of VCU's win, and he no doubt returned to the team hotel with plenty of warnings for his players.
Even more challenging, perhaps, is the loss of obvious disrespect. The media can no longer function as the bad guy. The Rams have proven themselves, and few will doubt them now.
Can Smart find a way to keep his team confident and aggrieved? Can this ebullient batch keep its edge?
One thing's for sure: If there's a way, Smart will find it. Even if it means another video session.
"It's a very fragile thing, confidence," Smart said. "It comes and goes. ... The terrific thing for us is it's mid-March, and we're playing our best basketball, and our guys are believing in what we do.
"It really doesn't matter who we're playing against," he said. "They know if we follow the plan and they trust each other, good things will happen."