College Basketball Nation: Bradford Burgess

PORTLAND -- There was 1-17 and Kelvin Sampson and the NCAA investigation and an implosion of a marquee program whose fans love their team because they really love the game of basketball -- and the game had become unwatchable at Indiana.

Misery was Hoosiers basketball over a 10-year stretch since the school last played for a national title in 2002. A proud program found itself cast into the fetid basement of the Big Ten with a 6-25 record in 2008-09.
The return of Indiana basketball from the depths was one of the major stories of this college hoops season. But everyone knew that story would be tested in the NCAA tournament. In college basketball, that's when plots thicken and teams are unmasked, their ultimate truth revealed by the pressure of win-or-go-home.

That the Hoosiers beat a rugged VCU team 63-61 to advance to the program's first Sweet 16 in a decade is meaningful in itself, of course. But the way the Hoosiers prevailed adds heft and substance to the accomplishment.

VCU was pushing Indiana around most of the night in the Rose Garden. It was dictating the pace. And its "havoc" defense forced a stunning 22 turnovers. The Hoosiers' previous worst this season was 18.

There were plenty of reasons to get flustered and to let doubt enter into the team huddle. Only it didn't. And during the final stretch, it was the IU defense, as well as clutch play, that stood out.

"I got to see this game, the last six or seven minutes through our players' eyes," coach Tom Crean said. "And they were so locked in and had such great resolve to never panic and to just truly believe that they were going to win."

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosiers
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesIndiana players celebrate their win over VCU, in which they overcame a 9-point second-half deficit.
Locking in and showing resolve. That sounds a bit like ... Indiana basketball.

Defense? VCU led 57-48 with 12:30 left. The Rams would score just four more points. Sure, some of that was poor shooting. But how can you not credit a defense for yielding that few points over that long of a stretch?

Clutch plays? Indiana scored the final seven points. Cody Zeller made two free throws that closed the gap to three. Victor Oladipo's 3-point play tied the count. And Will Sheehey's short jumper from the side gave the Hoosiers the lead for good with 14 seconds left.

Meanwhile, VCU faltered. Senior leader Bradford Burgess missed a pair of free throws with just under a minute left. Troy Daniels missed a 3 with 23 seconds left. And Rob Brandenberg missed a trey that would have won the game at the buzzer.

Defense often wins championships. But not always. Grabbing 10 steals is great, but VCU needed to be able to produce in the half court. It needed to hit more than 9 of its 30 3-point attempts. And, really, the Hoosiers still shot 52.2 percent, including making 6 of 13 3-pointers (46.2 percent).

"The shots that we got late in the game, I feel good about those looks," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "I feel good about the guys that were taking them, they just didn't go in. And that's basketball."

Indiana fans know how basketball is. It giveth and it can taketh away. And even during the rise from the ashes this season, there probably was still a pit of worry in most Hoosiers fans' stomachs.

Are we really back? How will these guys react when the screws tighten in the NCAA tournament?

The answers? Yes. And like Indiana basketball players.

Rapid Reaction: Indiana 63, VCU 61

March, 17, 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Some quick thoughts from Indiana's thrilling 63-61 victory over VCU.

Overview: VCU dictated the pace for most of the game against Indiana, but the Rams scored just four points over the final 12:20 as Indiana used a three-point play from Victor Oladipo and a short jumper from Will Sheehey to advance.

Turning point: VCU led 57-48 with 12:20 remaining, but the Rams could score only four more points. After wearing out the Hoosiers with pressure and a frantic pace, the Rams faltered in the half court. And give credit to Indiana for turning up its own defensive pressure and making clutch shots down the stretch. A key moment? VCU senior leader Bradford Burgess missed two free throws with one minute left.

Key player: Oladipo produced a game-changing three-point play with 46 seconds left. He finished with nine points, six assists and five rebounds, and shot 4-of-5 from the field.

Key stat: Indiana outrebounded VCU 33-20, including a 26-14 advantage on the defensive glass.

Miscellaneous: The Rams hit just nine of 30 3-point attempts. Indiana was 6-of-13. ... VCU forced 22 turnovers, including 10 steals. ... VCU has seven wins as an 11-seed or worse since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. That is the most such wins of any team in that span, one more than Richmond. ... Indiana's Cody Zeller tied for the game high with 16 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds.

What’s next: Indiana advances to the Sweet 16 and will play the winner of Kentucky-Iowa State.

Previewing Portland: Saturday's games

March, 17, 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Previewing the Round of 32 games at the Rose Garden:

No. 4 seed Indiana (26-8) vs. No. 12 VCU (29-6), 7:10 p.m. ET

VCU coach Shaka Smart enjoys inspiring, insightful quotes, and he's leaning on one that is relevant to his 2011-12 team as it prepares to face Indiana in the South Region with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line: "Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing."

It's from Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," but it could just as easily be from a book on the NCAA tournament, one written as a self-help tome for a select group of so-called mid-majors: "Cinderella: The Year After (and After and After)."

You might have heard this: Smart and the Rams burst onto the scene last year with a surprising Final Four run. Yes, they agree, it was really neat. Yes, they'll tell you, the banners hanging in their home gym still give them goose bumps. But things won are done and losing's soul lies in living in the past.

Said Smart, "We've used that [quote] at times because everyone wants to talk about last year's Final Four run, but that's done, that's over. It's all about now."

The Rams' showdown with Indiana is interesting for a variety of reasons. For one, the Hoosiers are a super-elite program that's been in the dumps of late but is eager to climb back to the top of hoops' Mt. Olympus. VCU is a newbie riding high under Smart's pitch-perfect leadership.

VCU, which has won 18 of 19, is all about its full-court-pressing "Havoc" defense. Indiana is a high-scoring team that isn't afraid to run. The Hoosiers also are great from behind the 3-point line, hitting on 43.6 percent of their attempts, which ranks second in the nation. In their first game here against New Mexico State, they put on an offensive exhibition, hitting 59 percent of their shots, including 7 of 13 from 3-point range. They scored inside and outside, they ran the break, found open looks in the halfcourt and seven players contributed to 15 total assists.

The question on Saturday is whether they can break the Rams' press and again get good looks at the basket. The key, Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said, is to not let the Rams dictate where the ball goes.

"You've got to do a great job of catching the ball where you want to catch it," he said. "If you catch it where they want you to catch it, it's going to be a problem."

VCU has good size, and 7-footer D.J. Haley did an outstanding job Thursday of containing Wichita State big man and leading scorer Garrett Stutz. But Indiana center Cody Zeller offers a different challenge: He's 6-11 and moves like a 3.

"He's as good as any big kid that we've played in the three years I've been at VCU," Smart said of the freshman. "You talk about him running the floor. We definitely can't give him easy baskets in transition. I would guess that one of the things that they'll try to do is get the ball in quickly after makes or, certainly on misses, get the ball outlet quickly and then look for Zeller running to the rim. If you can get the ball in extremely quickly before the press is set up, then that's one way to beat pressure defensive teams."

Against Wichita State, VCU showed it could score out of a half-court offense, which it has struggled to do this season, and make big shots when the screws tighten. And, while Indiana is the pedigreed program, it's the Rams who have been here before.

Of course, four starters are gone from the 2011 VCU team, and Indiana couldn't have looked more poised while it pounded the Aggies. The past, recent and dusty, probably won't dictate much Saturday.

Said VCU senior forward Bradford Burgess when asked to compare last year's team to this year's team, "Really, the only similarity is the name on the jersey."

No. 4 Louisville (27-9) vs. No. 5 New Mexico (28-6), 9:40 p.m. ET

Louisville has inside information on New Mexico. Cardinals assistant coach Wyking Jones was an assistant the previous two seasons for the Lobos. He was particularly close to the Lobos' two best players, forward Drew Gordon and guard Kendall Williams.

It might not matter a whit. It could, in fact, become more of a distraction, something New Mexico coach Steve Alford can anticipate and counter. But the Louisville players and coach Rick Pitino didn't hide the fact they see it as an advantage against the Lobos for Saturday's matchup.

"Well, he can't hurt, obviously, because he recruited some of their players, knows the guys, knows their personalities, when they could get down or when they could be up," Pitino said. "So we're going to have a good feel for them in abbreviated [way]. He gives us things, a feel that we wouldn't normally get."

Said guard Russ Smith, "It definitely helps because he knows their personnel very well. As far as the seniors and juniors on the team, he knows some of the calls that might be made. So Coach Jones definitely is helping us a lot, especially in practice and in film the past day."

The key in this one, however, is shooting. I know: Genius. But this game pits two of the nation's top-five field goal percentage defenses, with both hovering around 38 percent. Both defenses won the battle in their second-round victories. The Cardinals shut down a high-scoring Davidson attack, miring a team that likes to run in a half-court game, while Williams played a major role in shutting down Long Beach State point guard Casper Ware, the Big West Player of the Year, who shot 5 of 19 from the field and was 2-of-9 from 3-point range.

Williams seems most likely to take on surging Louisville point guard Peyton Siva. While Siva isn't the Cardinals' leading scorer, he won Most Outstanding Player as he and his teammates took a surprising roll through the Big East tournament. He scored 17 points -- one below his season's high -- in the win over Davidson, and has averaged 14.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.6 steals in five postseason games.

Not surprisingly, the uptick in Siva's play has coincided with the uptick in the Cardinals' fortunes. Pitino credited the change to Siva's late-season ability to vary the speed of his play, which came out of a meeting between the two.

Said Pitino, recalling the meeting, "'Peyton, I'm going to tell you why you're struggling, because you just play at one pace, extremely fast. And because of that, you have a lot of turnovers, because you don't know how to probe and change your pace and create things because you play at one speed.'

"And we showed him a tape of Steve Nash and how Steve always probes and gets in the lane and keeps his dribble and comes back and does something else. And that more than anything else really changed his mindset of learning how to change speeds. And he's been brilliant in the Big East tournament. Brilliant yesterday with doing that. And for someone to make that abrupt change like that and really just visualize himself doing that speaks about his basketball IQ in a big way."

So, is the Siva-Williams matchup going to happen? We'll, er, Siva. Alford wouldn't commit.

"Kendall Williams always gets the top assignment," he said. "If he's the top assignment, Kendall will get that assignment."

While there are some similarities between the teams, there also are plenty of differences. For one, New Mexico doesn't see a lot of full-court press in the Mountain West Conference. And Louisville will be much happier running and creating a frantic pace.

The biggest is this: New Mexico has never reached the Sweet 16. Louisville has been there 17 times, fifth-most in the nation.

But neither history nor Wyking Jones is likely to be the difference in this one. It's probably going to be about getting good looks against defenses that don't give many of them. And converting those looks.

PORTLAND -- Some quick thoughts from VCU's 62-59 upset over Wichita State in the second round of the South Regional in Portland.

Overview: VCU, thought to be rebuilding after a Final Four run a year ago, held off this year's supposed mid-major darling, Wichita State, building a 13-point lead in the second half and then holding on during a furious final three minutes. The surprising thing? It wasn't the Rams' "Havoc" defense that did the trick, though it did hold the Shockers to nearly 19 points below their season average. It was the Rams' proving they could score in the half court, particularly when the screws tightened late.

Turning point: Wichita State's Toure' Murry made a 3-pointer with two minutes left that gave the Shockers their first lead of the second half at 59-57. But VCU's Bradford Burgess answered with a trey on the other end to retake the lead. The Shockers wouldn't make another shot over the final 1:30.

Key player: Burgess, a senior who made his 145th start in a row -- adding to his NCAA record -- scored 13 points in the first half, but that 3-pointer was his only score of the second half. Still, he finished with a team-high 16 points with four rebounds and four assists and no turnovers. And, you know, that shot was sort of, well, important.

Key stat: The Rams hit 42.4 percent from the field, while Wichita State, which ranked 13th in the nation this year by shooting at a 48.5 percent clip, hit only 37.5 percent.

Miscellaneous: Shockers leading scorer Garrett Stutz had a fine year but a terrible game. He played only 16:48 due to foul trouble, and he hit just 2 of 11 from the field. He finished with 4 points and 6 rebounds. He also missed the Shockers' final two shots, including a layup that would have given them the lead with a minute left. ... Both teams had five steals. ... The Rams had 13 second-chance points; the Shockers had 11.

What’s next: VCU advances to play Indiana, which handled New Mexico State in the Portland South Regional nightcap.

Previewing Portland: Evening games

March, 15, 2012
PORTLAND -- Let's take a look at the evening games:

No. 5 Wichita State (27-5) vs. No. 12 VCU (28-6), 7:15 p.m. ET

Just call Wichita State-VCU a major mid-major matchup.

Last year, VCU rolled all the way to the Final Four. This year, Wichita State is the vogue pick for a team outside a BCS conference to make some noise in the NCAA tournament. In fact, ESPN's Joe Lunardi, Ph.D. in Bracketology, has called the Shockers "the best true mid-major in the tournament."

"You talk about the power six conferences, [but] any good mid-major team can play with any good power six conference team," Shockers 7-foot center Garrett Stutz said.

Further, these teams have a little history. The Rams beat the Shockers 68-67 last year in a regular-season nail-biter. The Rams and coach Shaka Smart went on to become national darlings. Wichita State didn't get invited to the NCAA tournament, despite a 24-8 record, but went on to win the NIT.

The Shockers remember the loss to the Rams with just a bit of a "that could have been us" wistfulness.

"It's something that's been in the back of our minds for a long time now," Stutz said. "When they beat us, that kind of gave them momentum into their NCAA tournament round. So there's definitely still some ... I won't call it a rivalry, but there's still some motivation for us."

VCU was supposed to be rebuilding after losing four starters from a team that was just the third 11th seed to reach the Final Four, but the Rams have won 17 of 18. Their leader is senior guard Bradford Burgess, who already has broken Patrick Ewing's record for most consecutive starts (144 in a row).

The Shockers, playing in their first NCAA tournament since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2006, are an intriguing, veteran team with a highly respected coach, Gregg Marshall. They have six players who averaged between 8.3 and 13.5 points per game. Stutz tops that list and adds eight rebounds per game. Seven Shockers play at least 22 minutes a game. Their average margin of victory -- 15.3 points per game -- ranks third in the nation. They are plus-6.7 in rebound margin (12th in nation), shoot 48.5 percent from the field (13th) and average 77.7 points per game (15th).

While Wichita State can wow you with offense, VCU is all about "havoc defense." "Havoc" defense? It's not just that opponents averaged only 59.8 points per game against the Rams. VCU forces a turnover on 27.4 percent of its possessions, grabs 10.7 steals per game and forces 17.9 turnovers per game; each of those numbers ranks first in the nation. The Rams average 20.4 points per game off turnovers.

And the Rams need those points. VCU is not good on the boards -- minus-2 per game -- and shoots a piddly 41 percent from the floor, which ranks 286th nationally. The Shockers can play some D also. They rank 21st in field goal percentage defense (39.1).

So this game turns on whether Wichita State can handle the Rams' pressure and force them to score in conventional ways, which they haven't consistently been able to do.

No. 4 Indiana (25-8) vs. No. 13 New Mexico State (26-9), 9:45 p.m. ET

One of the big stories in college basketball this season was the return of Indiana to the national scene. And lookie here: The Hoosiers are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. Isn't that nice?

But if you've been around college basketball for anything more than, oh, 10 years, it still seems a bit off-putting to hear Hoosiers coach Tom Crean asked before a matchup with New Mexico State whether his team will be "blinded by the glitter of the NCAA."

"There's nobody that feels like they've arrived or that they're just happy to be here," Crean said.

This is, by the way, the Hoosiers' 36th appearance in the tournament, which ranks first in the Big Ten and sixth in the nation. This season, Indiana has wins over Kentucky, Michigan State and Ohio State. "Happy to be here" won't be in play until the Sweet 16 in Atlanta.

Of course, college basketball has changed since Indiana's golden years under Bob Knight. Crean, for one, wasn't interested in providing a pat on the Aggies' head for being such a formidable "mid-major."

"They're a big team," Crean said. "I would put them for sure in the upper-half -- well into the upper-half -- of size, strength, body types of what we would face in the Big Ten. There's nothing, quote-unquote, 'mid-major' about them."

That's not just coachspeak. The Aggies appear to have an edge in the paint in this one, with high-scoring senior forward Wendell McKines, who averages 18.8 points and 10.8 rebounds, and 6-foot-11 senior center Hamidu Rahman.

The Aggies are high-scoring -- 78.4 points per game -- while being a poor 3-point shooting team. That's because they own the boards. Their plus-8.7 rebounding margin ranks third in the nation. They've grabbed 135 more offensive rebounds this season than their opponents.

Further, they are adept at drawing contact. While they are a poor free throw shooting team -- 66.7 percent -- they lead the nation in free throw attempts per game, a stunning 29.9. So, despite the low percentage, they've made more free throws (699) than their opponents have attempted (663).

And, yeah, it's fair to wonder what New Mexico State's record would be if the team hit at, say, a 75 percent clip.

On the other side of the floor, the Hoosiers should be able to take advantage of a weak Aggies defense. Indiana has a nice inside-outside game, with 6-foot-11 freshman Cody Zeller (15.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) -- the Big Ten Freshman of the Year -- manning the paint and the Hoosiers hitting 43.3 percent from behind the 3-point arc.

A major concern is that Indiana lost senior guard Verdell Jones to a torn ACL in the Big Ten tournament.

"We miss him," Crean said. "There's no way around it. He's a stabilizing force."

It wasn't too long ago that Indiana was a stable force in college hoops. But the Hoosiers won't officially be back until they stack up a couple of tourney wins.
There will be no hand-wringing or worrying, no public outcry or gnashing of teeth.

Virginia Commonwealth is back in the NCAA tournament, and no one can argue the Rams don’t belong.

A year after its epic run to the Final Four began amid controversy surrounding its at-large bid, VCU assured itself a second date by winning the CAA tournament and ousting top-seeded Drexel 59-56 in the championship game.

It’s the Rams’ first conference tourney title since 2009 and the first of coach Shaka Smart’s career.

“Well, the next six days, we will be checking the Bracketology and predictions a lot less than we did a year ago,’’ Smart said. “It was kind of cruel and unusual punishment last year, but that’s the way it goes. Now, Selection Sunday was a blast once our name was called, and this year it will be a blast in a different way. We know we’re in. Now it’s just a matter of what seed we are and who we’re playing.’’

This should, of course, be the start of a new narrative for the Rams. VCU lost four starters from that memorable team that went from First Four to Final Four, leaving Bradford Burgess behind to shepherd a group of former role players into key spots.

And it didn’t come easily or quickly. The Rams didn’t look pretty early, losing by double-digits to Seton Hall and awful Georgia Tech in the Charleston Classic and then dropping two of their first four league games.

But Smart stayed true and patient, and his players stayed with him, steadily climbing through one 11-game win streak and then another six-game run en route to the CAA title.

“A lot of people doubted us, didn’t think we’d be a championship-caliber team,’’ Smart said. “In November, we weren’t. We weren’t good enough to do what we did tonight. But that’s why we play and coach the way we do. We emphasized improvement. I always thought we were talented enough as a group and that if we developed the confidence and swagger and toughness, we’d be a championship-caliber team. To their credit, they did that.’’

Now that they are back in, the Rams are prepared for the inevitable. Smart long ago addressed the elephant in his locker room, encouraging his players to be respectful of people who want to talk about last year but to privately put it to rest. “Own today’’ was the motto the coach came up with, making business cards his players could tuck into their wallets.

Owning today will be more difficult starting next week when VCU, the tournament darling a year ago, steps back up to an NCAA podium.

Smart, though, intends to turn the pressure on its ear.

“With all the bubble talk, there were a lot of questions even now comparing us to last year’s team,’’ he said. “Our guys all year long have known that we’re going to have a target on our backs. But we intend to use it as an advantage. Going into the NCAA tournament, we have a lot of guys with tournament experience, deep tournament experience.’’

At least this year the Rams won’t have to prove they belong.

Top 10 Thursday: FSU's turnaround

February, 23, 2012
In the moments that followed a 79-59 road loss to Clemson on Jan. 7, Florida State’s coaching staff accosted players in the locker room about the multiple gaffes that had led to the lopsided score.

The Seminoles’ stubborn defense had failed them as the Tigers shot 49 percent from the field. They committed 16 turnovers. And their 24 fouls led to Clemson’s 28-for-33 mark from the charity stripe.

But as Leonard Hamilton and his staff pointed out the team’s flaws, Bernard James stirred in his seat, especially when coaches questioned players’ collective effort.

[+] EnlargeMichael Snaer
Melina Vastola/US PresswireMichael Snaer and Florida State are rolling with wins in 10 of their past 11 games.
James, who scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds in that game, felt a need to speak. With a declarative tone, he told everyone in the room that he had played hard. And he asked his teammates, who’d just suffered their sixth loss in 10 games, if they’d done the same.

“I just kind of snapped right there. I kind of defended myself,” James told “I felt like I played hard that game. I placed the blame on certain individuals. It wasn’t to tear anybody down. I just felt like somebody needed to take responsibility for the loss.”

That moment broke the ice for a Florida State squad that turned a postgame discussion into an intervention. James said the Seminoles expressed their frustrations with one another. They talked about the missed assignments that had led to their poor start. They vowed to implement more accountability.

“We pretty much had to let the frustration out to start off on a new foot,” said junior Michael Snaer.

They’ve won 10 of their past 11 games, a mark punctuated by wins over North Carolina and Duke. Tickets for Thursday night’s home game against Duke sold out in 15 minutes.

The Seminoles’ evolution was evident on the final play of their 76-73 road win at Duke on Jan. 21. After Austin Rivers tied the game on a late drive, the Seminoles didn’t panic. They just executed.

James said he “knocked the snot out of” Seth Curry on a screen as Luke Loucks drove up the floor and found Snaer in the corner for the winning 3-pointer.

“Something would have went wrong [if that had happened before the Clemson loss]. Something would have been out of place,” James said. “The reason why that play worked was because everything happened the way it was supposed to.”

Hamilton could see the surge coming. Even after the Clemson loss, the coach said he believed his team was struggling because it hadn’t jelled yet. Xavier Gibson had switched positions. Loucks was still getting comfortable as the starting point guard. Ian Miller was unavailable at the start of the season, but he’s averaged 10.5 points per game since his Dec. 22 return.

But Hamilton agrees that the Clemson loss jolted a team that needed a midseason wake-up call.

“That game just brought us back to reality,” he said. “It kind of refocused us.”

Here’s a list of the other squads that have managed to turn things around this year:

Drexel -- The Dragons lost four of their first six games. But they’ve lost just one game since Dec. 3 and are riding a 14-game winning streak. They’re on top of the CAA with a 15-2 record.

George Mason -- Paul Hewitt endured some early struggles in his first season at George Mason. Nonconference losses to Florida Atlantic and Florida International seemed to spell trouble for the Patriots. But the Patriots found some poise as the season progressed. At 14-3 in the CAA, they’re tied with VCU for second place.

Iowa State -- The Cyclones suffered from the chemistry issues that come with being a team that relies on transfers. Despite possessing talented players such as Royce White and Chris Allen, the Cyclones lost at Drake, to Northern Iowa at home and at Michigan in their nonconference season. Would they find a way to click and extract the full potential from their roster? Yep. The Cyclones are fourth in the Big 12 with a 10-5 record, and they’re probably headed back to the NCAA tournament.

LIU Brooklyn -- The Blackbirds own the Northeast Conference right now (15-1). But they lost six of their first 11 games.

Notre Dame -- It all started with Tim Abromaitis suffering a season-ending injury in November. The Fighting Irish’s 65-58 road loss to Rutgers on Jan. 16 was their eight defeat of the year. But that’s the past. The new Fighting Irish have won nine games in a row.

South Florida -- The Bulls are on the bubble with a 10-5 record in the Big East. In late December, that would have appeared to be a misguided forecast. From Nov. 19 through Dec. 28, the Bulls lost seven of 11 games.

UNC Greensboro -- The Spartans are on top of the Southern Conference’s North division with a 10-7 record. Somehow, this team recovered from a 2-14 start to its 2011-12 campaign. Now that’s a turnaround.

VCU -- Shaka Smart’s Rams look dangerous again. After losing most of the starters from last season’s Final Four team, the Rams lost three of their first six games. But Bradford Burgess (12.9 ppg) has embraced his role as a leader on and off the floor. They’re tied with George Mason for second place in the CAA at 14-3.

Washington -- There’s a lot of bad in the Pac-12. But the Huskies are one of the struggling league’s success stories. They lost to South Dakota State 92-73 at home Dec. 18. It was their fifth loss in seven games. But the Huskies have lost just three games since that disaster. They’re 12-3 in the Pac-12 and making a legitimate push for an at-large berth.

Coach's Corner: VCU's Shaka Smart

February, 14, 2012
Six years ago, George Mason did the impossible, upsetting its way to the Final Four. In 2010 Butler made impossible happen again, getting within one half-court heave of a national title.

By the time last year’s title game ended, we were all believers that impossible was easily doable after watching Butler and Virginia Commonwealth claim two of the coveted last four spots in college basketball.

Shaka Smart
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesVCU coach Shaka Smart has his team rolling at the right time.
Which leads to the simple question: who’s got next?

This season, all mid-major eyes have been on Murray State, Creighton and Harvard.

Don’t look now, but some familiar names are gaining steam. On Tuesday night, VCU and George Mason will meet in a Colonial Athletic Association clash. Both, along with Drexel, are 13-2 in conference. The Rams have 22 wins, the Patriots 21. VCU has won 11 in a row, 9 of its past 10.

Before the Final Four veterans tipped off, caught up with Shaka Smart, who nearly a year after he owned Houston is still talking about his team’s storybook run.

How do you get over the hangover from last year’s Final Four run?

Shaka Smart: At our first team meeting of the year, I gave the guys pocket-sized cards, black and gold. On one side it had our motto for this year and [on] the other it said, ‘It’s over.’ I told them that I wanted them to keep the cards in their wallets or somewhere they could reference them and see them every day. I told them people are going to want to bring up last year 100 times a day. I want them to be polite, to acknowledge what people are asking, to indulge them even, but in your mind say, ‘It’s over.’

It never goes away. It’s still all anyone wants to talk about. I’ll be doing an interview, or someone on the team will, and it’s about something completely different, but inevitably it turns to last March. It comes with the territory.

So what’s this year’s motto then?

SS: Well, I haven’t told anyone that, but I’ll tell you. It’s ‘Own today.’ We talk a lot about taking ownership individually and as a team. The today part is about getting away from the past and not worrying about the future.

They’ve been pretty good about it. It’s a work in progress every day for all of us when we wake up. I’ll tell guys, ‘Too much past and future right now. Get back to right now,’ but for the most part, they’ve been very good.

With Butler’s success, as well as your own and George Mason’s, has the bar been raised for mid-majors?

SS: What Butler did was on a whole different level than us and Mason -- back-to-back years of being 40 minutes away from winning the thing.

But I think it’s less surprising now. I remember maybe seven years ago (Akron coach) Keith Dambrot told me, ‘One of these years a mid-major is going to win the whole thing.’ I thought he was out of his mind. Then right around then, Saint Joseph’s went to the Elite Eight and Keith said, ‘See? I told you.’

I think what’s happened is, people realize this can happen. I still don’t think anyone is out there predicting it, not even with Butler, but every year there’s some mid-major -- this year it’s Creighton or Murray -- that has a lot of experience, that isn’t afraid of the big boys, and people start thinking.

Because of the culture of the game, it’s such a small world with AAU and the non-conference schedule, there are more and more matchups against bigger teams, so there’s less of a fear. You don’t see that fear of the big boys anymore.

You’ve won 11 in a row after a slow start. What’s changed?

SS: Coming into the season, we had a completely new roster. We lost five players, four of our top scorers and some guys who played significant but minor roles last year were now playing significant but major roles.

Even Bradford Burgess, he’s in a completely different position, because now he’s Batman. He’s used to being Robin. Even in high school, he played with Ed Davis, so he had never had to be the guy, the focal point of a scouting report, and it took some time to adjust to that.

I think we’ve really made progress each month of the season, but we’re still a work in progress.

So what do you need to do in this big game against George Mason?
We have to rebound better than we did in our last game. We got pummeled on the glass against Old Dominion. We have to do a good job on Ryan Pearson, who I think is arguably the best player in our conference. He’s the toughest matchup, I think, in our league because he can do so much. He’s dangerous around the basket, and he’s strong and savvy.

Our team, we’re much better this year defensively than we were a year ago, but we’re not as good offensively.

And unfortunately the scoreboard only moves one way.

Roundtable: Four burning questions

January, 27, 2012
Editor’s note: writers Eamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf are joined by ESPN Insider John Gasaway to discuss several burning questions in college basketball.

The weekends that don’t look great on paper are usually the ones filled with wackiness. Who should be on upset alert?

[+] EnlargeRoyce White
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireIowa State's Royce White, left, and Kansas' Thomas Robinson meet Saturday in Ames, Iowa, in a rematch of their Jan. 14 showdown at Allen Fieldhouse.
Eamonn Brennan: "Upset alert" flows a little bit better than "'top-10 team playing a solid conference opponent on the road' alert," but whatever we want to call it, I'm leaning toward Kansas. The Jayhawks travel to Ames, Iowa, for a Big 12 battle with a solid Iowa State team, and one that just so happens to have its best player -- forward Royce White -- matching up with Kansas's frontcourt beast, forward Thomas Robinson. Robinson and Jeff Withey could make life very difficult for White in the paint, but White's versatility could cause the Jayhawks some issues. A re-energized Hilton Coliseum crowd should be in full voice, and if the Cyclones can keep it close down the stretch, they might be able to pull off what Texas couldn't the previous Saturday.

John Gasaway: Sound the alarm and batten down the hatches because the upset alert's on full blast for Syracuse. They're welcoming West Virginia to the Carrier Dome on Saturday, and I just can't imagine the Mountaineers playing two consecutive terrible games. (Oh, yeah, they were terrible against St. John's, trust me.) I'm guessing that by now Bob Huggins has spoken to his team and pointed out the flaws in its performance in a calm, nonjudgmental and supportive manner. I also think Jim Boeheim's players are a little more freaked about Fab Melo's absence than they need to be -- or at least they're playing like it. I say the Mountaineers win a tight one.

Myron Medcalf: Kansas could fall Saturday in Ames. The last time Iowa State and Kansas faced off, the Cyclones took an early double-digit lead but couldn’t maintain it in the Jayhawks’ 82-73 win Jan. 14. But Hilton Coliseum will be rocking for an Iowa State team that’s due for an upset. Royce White is the key.

It’s a little early to be talking about the bubble, but what team has a particularly important game this weekend?

Brennan: BYU. The Artist Formerly Known as Joey Brackets placed the Cougars among his first four out in Monday's bracket update, and that's about right: At 18-5, the Cougars don't have much in the way of quality wins, and they were shellacked at home by Loyola Marymount last week. On Saturday, they'll host Saint Mary's, which beat them soundly (98-82) in the teams' first matchup in Moraga, Calif., on Dec. 29. A victory here would be huge for conference competition, obviously, but it also would go a long way toward improving a résumé that needs improvement amid a schedule that simply doesn't offer many marquee matchups the rest of the way.

Gasaway: It's never too early for bubble talk, particularly in Tuscaloosa, where Alabama is improbably playing its way into this conversation for a second consecutive season. The Crimson Tide were supposed to be a shoo-in for this year's NCAA tournament, but at 13-7 overall and riding a four-game losing streak in conference, Anthony Grant's team is suddenly looking very bubbly. The Tide would be well advised to win that home game against Arkansas on Saturday.

Medcalf: Middle Tennessee might not need the Sun Belt tourney title to reach the NCAA tournament this year. The Blue Raiders have won 12 in a row, and they have a Top 60 RPI. A win against Vandy this weekend puts this underrated team in at-large contention and the Top 25 discussion.

What player or individual matchup are you most looking forward to this weekend?

Brennan: I'm extremely excited to see West Virginia's Kevin Jones go head to head with Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone. If you had to design a player to play against said zone, and that player wasn't a lightning-quick point guard with unimpeachable handles, you'd do pretty well with Jones. Long, active and versatile, WVU's star forward can attack the rim, drain 3s from the perimeter, rough it up on the offensive boards and, perhaps most important, provide a go-to option at the elbow -- the 2-3's most vulnerable spot.

Gasaway: It is so on: Michigan's Trey Burke vs. Ohio State's Aaron Craft, in Columbus on Sunday. As if Wolverines and Buckeyes needed a reason to get up for a game against each other, these two point guards were made to be rivals. This was supposed to be the year we all hailed the sophomore-year development of Craft, who's still a lockdown defender but has added new dimensions to his game on offense. Oops. In the "Big Ten point guard" category, a lot of the ink's been going to a flashy freshman instead (go figure). Burke's been fantastic as the floor general for a Michigan team that thinks it can get the program its first Sweet 16 since 1994. I’ll be by my TV for this one, with popcorn.

Medcalf: Thomas Robinson vs. Royce White. Robinson might be the best the player in the country right now. But he rarely picks on someone his own size. Enter 6-8, 270-pound White, who put up 18 points and 17 rebounds the last time Iowa State played Kansas. Should be a war between these two giants.

What’s a slightly off-the-radar game that we should be keeping an eye on?

Brennan: I'm not sure you can call a 3 p.m. ESPN game between two high-profile Big East foes "off the radar," but, given Pittsburgh's struggles in Big East play this season, we (rightfully) haven't heard much about Georgetown's trip to the Peterson Events Center this weekend. But if I were a Georgetown fan, I'd be a little bit nervous. It's not that Pittsburgh has suddenly turned a corner; this week's win against Providence was nice, but it wasn't a season-changer. Still, Travon Woodall appears to be getting healthy, which frees Ashton Gibbs to play his more natural off-ball shooting guard spot, and the Hoyas have found themselves in close games pretty frequently this past month or so. Georgetown should win. But I'd be wary.

Gasaway: Virginia Commonwealth at Georgia State on Saturday. You remember VCU, of course, from a little thing called last year's Final Four. This season, Shaka Smart has the Rams in the thick of the CAA race at 8-2, right behind 9-1 George Mason. Meanwhile, GSU started out strong, but the Panthers have lost three of their past four. Ron Hunter's team has to defend its home floor if it's going to stay in the conference chase. Georgia State has the league's top defense but will be hard pressed to stop Bradford Burgess & Co. This one's off-radar but on my agenda.

Medcalf: Arkansas at Alabama, on the surface, means nothing. Neither team is in SEC contention right now. But I’m convinced that, if Bama loses this game -- it would be its fifth consecutive loss -- it will never recover, and it will go from Top 25 team to NIT or worse by the end of the season. A third consecutive win for Arkansas could push the Razorbacks, who beat Michigan last weekend, in the opposite direction … toward an NCAA tourney slot.
The Navy SEALs are famous for their intense training procedures. According to How Stuff Works, the SEALs' training includes eight weeks of:
days are filled with running, swimming, calisthenics, and learning small-boat operations. One-to-2 mile ocean swims and running the mother of all obstacle courses are daily, and timed, events. A trainee's time for these exercises must continuously improve.

It also includes something called "drown-proofing," in which SEALs trainees, their hands and feet bound, must perform a series of underwater maneuvers, including a 100-meter swim, timed bobbing and floating exercises, and a move which requires them to swim to the bottom of the pool and retrieve an object with their teeth. There's also "surf torture," in which SEALs shift between submergence in cold water and ordered calisthenics and sprints on the beach.

Then, of course, there's "Hell Week:"
The fourth week of Basic Conditioning is known as Hell Week. This is when students train for five days and five nights solid with a maximum total of four hours of sleep. Hell Week begins at sundown on Sunday and ends at the end of Friday. [...] Pretty much every evolution during Hell Week involves the team (or boat crew) carrying their boat -- inflatable rubber Zodiacs -- over their heads. Timed exercises, runs, and crawling through mud flats are interspersed throughout the five-and-a-half days. The largest number of trainees [drop] out during Hell Week.

I quote that stuff because ... well, OK, I'll admit it: I'm sort of obsessed with the Navy SEALs. But I also looked it up because I wanted to see just how close Virginia Commonwealth -- which opened its preseason training regimen with Navy SEALs-style workouts this week -- was getting to the real thing. My conclusion? VCU's drills probably wavered from the SEALs a tad. Safer that way.

But as's Matt Norlander reports today, VCU did get a taste of what the SEALs go through in the Rams' own miniature version of "Hell Week." Rams strength and conditioning coach Daniel Roose took a SEALs training seminar from this guy, and he returned to Richmond with a bevy of seemingly brutal drills for his team to endure. Oh, and it's not just the team. VCU coach Shaka Smart joined in, too, and in doing so required everyone in the program -- down to the team's SID, Scott Day -- to get involved:
“We carried each other, did a lot of push-ups,” [senior Bradford] Burgess said. There was also ab work, tug-of-war and sled-tugging. Wednesday morning was more individual workouts. “We had to run, do bear crawls, crab walking. It was a lot of long-distance running. ... He’s trying to get our mental aspects of the game right. He teaches us to battle fatigue just like our coaches have all along."

“That field was probably a hundred yards but it felt like a mile long,” Smart said. “But the great, great thing instructor McGuire preached was, when you get done, you don’t stand and rest. You go back to last. You go back to the last guy in line and help him finish.”

That's not only a great lesson in teamwork. It's also encouraging for guys like me, who wouldn't be able to finish this sort of training without four or five large men physically carrying me across the finish line. Hey, guys, a little help? (This would totally be me.)

Anyway, check out Matt's post; he's got some great photos to go along with the anecdotes. College hoops has never seen a seemingly mediocre team catalyze so brilliantly at the most important time of the season as the 2011 VCU Rams. As Smart's team was trouncing one high-major favorite after another, it was impossible not to wonder: Where did these guys come from?

If something similar happens this season, we'll know it started with a little training from the Navy SEALs.

NCAA tournament crunch-time moments

March, 28, 2011
The NCAA tournament had plenty of excitement when it came down to crunch time. Let's look back at some of the memorable late-possession moments from the first two weeks:

In the East:
  • Luke Hancock's 3-pointer with 21 seconds left capped a George Mason comeback win over Villanova in the second round.
  • Brandon Knight's driving layup with two seconds remaining gave Kentucky a two-point win over Princeton in the second round.
  • Darius Johnson-Odom's 3-pointer with 27 seconds left helped push Marquette past Syracuse in the second round.
  • Washington's meltdown against North Carolina in the final few possessions that prevented the Huskies from tying the Tar Heels at the end of regulation in the third round.
  • Knight's 15-foot shot that sent Kentucky past Ohio State in the Sweet 16.

In the West:
  • Tennessee quit on the game in the second half and lost by 30 to Michigan.
  • Duke's Kyrie Irving made his only field goal against Michigan with 32 seconds left as he gave the Blue Devils a lead before the Wolverines' Darius Morris missed a game-tying runner at the buzzer.
  • Arizona's Derrick Williams blocked a potential game-tying bucket by Memphis in the final seconds.
  • Williams converted a three-point play with 9.6 seconds remaining to upset Texas after the Longhorns committed a five-second violation on an inbounds play.
  • Temple's Juan Fernandez nailed an off-balance 18-foot shot to beat Penn State in the second round after Talor Battle hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 12.2 seconds left.

In the Southwest:
  • Down by two to Louisville, Morehead State's Demonte Harper went for the win and got it with a 3-pointer with 4.2 second left to beat the Cardinals in the second round.
  • VCU's Bradford Burgess converted a layup off an inbounds pass with 7.1 seconds left in overtime to knock off Florida State in the Sweet 16.

And in the Southeast:
  • Butler beat Old Dominion on a layup by Matt Howard at the buzzer.
  • Butler beat Pitt after Nasir Robinson fouled Howard on a rebound off a missed free-throw at the buzzer when the game was tied. Howard hits a free throw to win the third-round game.

And in the First Four:
  • UNC Asheville's Matt Dickey hit a 3-pointer with 10.5 seconds left that sent the game against Arkansas-Little Rock into overtime before Asheville won.

Elite Eight preview: VCU vs. Kansas

March, 27, 2011

SAN ANTONIO -- A quick preview of the Southwest Regional final: Virginia Commonwealth vs. Kansas:

No. 11 seed VCU Rams vs. No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks, 2:20 p.m. ET (CBS)

What to watch: The glass. Kansas is a brutally effective rebounding team, with a plus-7.9 advantage on the backboard this season. VCU is a minus-3.6. Friday night might have portended what Sunday has in store. In the blowout of Richmond, the Jayhawks were a plus-eight. The same night, VCU was crushed on the glass by Florida State, 47-32.

VCU fully understands how important that area of the game will be. Point guard Joey Rodriguez said that at a Saturday team meeting, some of the Rams’ big men were called out by their teammates for a lack of production on the glass against the Seminoles.

The Jayhawks also were able to intimidate the Spiders, starting with trash talk the day before the game and escalating it to a pregame shoving match in the tunnel leading to the court. Richmond acted unnerved when the game began and promptly fell behind by 22 points. VCU might be a bit outmanned, but it probably won’t be unnerved.

“They kind of bullied [Richmond],” Rodriguez said. “We can’t let that happen to us. I don’t think we will. We’ve got a different set of guys, a lot of tough guys.”

Who to watch: For Virginia Commonwealth, wing Bradford Burgess. He failed to make any of the three CAA all-conference teams, and was insulted by that. Since then, he’s played like a guy who should have been a first-teamer. He’s averaged 17.5 points, 7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the NCAA tourney, and he’s made 9 of his past 11 3-pointers. If VCU is going to have a shot in this game, it will probably need another hot shooting hand from Burgess. Continued aggressiveness would be welcome, too; coach Shaka Smart said he believes Burgess doesn’t shoot enough.

For Kansas, the play of the power triumvirate of Marcus and Markieff Morris and Thomas Robinson off the bench will be central to the outcome. Nobody feeds the post more resolutely than the Jayhawks, usually with great results -- that’s why the Morris twins are combining to average 30.7 points, with Robinson contributing 7.8 off the bench. Friday night the three produced a total of 30 points and 27 rebounds. They will present a major challenge for the vulnerable VCU interior.

VCU wins if: If the Rams maintain their preternatural confidence and poise, both of which flow freely from their coach. And if Rodriguez is able to get the Rams into some productive half-court action -- the VCU senior has a tourney-leading 33 assists and six turnovers this tourney. And if they’re able to score enough from 3-point range to offset whatever they give up in the paint. And if they’re able to produce some turnovers and transition baskets before Kansas can set up its defense. And, if all that fails, if they can find a little leftover pixie dust, the likes of which it used to sneak past Florida State by a point Friday.

Kansas wins if: Once again, the Jayhawks should be in great shape if they merely play up to their capabilities. They slapped 11 minutes of dazzling basketball on Richmond on Friday, and it led to a blowout victory. Through three games, KU has not been seriously challenged, winning each by at least 14 points. If the Jayhawks shoot a solid percentage and don’t give up a boatload of 3s, this one should be similar. The interesting question will be how they respond if VCU hangs around until late.

What they’re saying: “We don’t want to bully nobody. But that’s good if that’s what they think we’re going to do.” -- KU’s Markieff Morris, on whether VCU is preparing for intimidation tactics from Kansas.

“We’ve been watching them our whole lives on TV. They’re a great program, but they wake up and put their shorts on the same way we do.” -- Rodriguez on the Jayhawks.

“We’re at Kansas. Kansas is never an underdog. We have always been Goliath, all the time. We just have to embrace that role.” -- Marcus Morris on being the heavy favorite.

“I probably would say something slick like, ‘Nice prediction.’ But I wouldn’t say anything rude.” -- VCU’s Jamie Skeen, if he had the chance to discuss the Rams’ tournament success with those who said they shouldn’t have been included in the field.

Noteworthy: VCU players were tickled early Saturday morning to receive pictures from home in Richmond, Va., where students had flooded into Broad Street and closed it down to through traffic. “We have the whole city on our back now,” Rodriguez said. … Kansas has trailed for a total of 3 minutes and 29 seconds in 120 minutes of NCAA tourney play. It has led for every second of its 60 minutes of second-half play. ... With Butler's victory Saturday, KU has a chance to reach the national title without having played a team seeded seventh or better.

VCU's improbable March run continues

March, 26, 2011

SAN ANTONIO -- Joey Rodriguez was out of options and nearly out of time.

“I was counting in my head,” the Virginia Commonwealth guard said. “I was at four.”

Four seconds into his attempt to inbound the ball beneath the Florida State basket. One more tick and it would be a five-second violation, and the Rams would almost certainly have lost their last decent chance to beat the Seminoles.

They trailed 71-70 in overtime, having frittered away a nine-point lead in the final 7:05 of regulation. And now they were eight seconds away from ending their stirring, underdog run to the Sweet 16.

And the clock was ticking in Rodriguez’s head. A play originally designed for Brandon Rozzell blew up when Rozzell and forward Jamie Skeen collided. Then it was on to Plan B -- Bradford Burgess slipping to the hoop off the third screen of the sequence -- which coach Shaka Smart had told his point guard would be open late in the play.

So Rodriguez kept his wits about him. The little senior Smart called the mentally toughest player he’s coached didn’t panic. He faked a deep pass to freeze the Florida State defense, then suddenly discovered Burgess cutting to the basket.

[+] EnlargeVCU's Bradford Burgess
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezVCU's Bradford Burgess lays in the game-winning shot off an inbounds pass in the final seconds of OT.

Shockingly open.

Shocking, in part, because it seemed that no Ram had gotten open for days. Florida State’s vaunted defense had suffocated VCU, holding it to three points in the final 7 minutes of regulation and five more points in overtime. The Seminoles had blocked shots, created turnovers, forced shot-clock violations, instilled doubt in a team that had played so freely and so well for so long.

Now here, in the literal nick of time, came Burgess slicing into the paint between Deividas Dulkys and the unfortunate Derwin Kitchen. All alone.

“I was very surprised,” Rodriguez said.

Kitchen took the blame, saying he turned his head the wrong way and lost Burgess. It would be the second part of an unholy trinity of late-game errors for the senior guard. You could describe the end of regulation and the end of overtime as Hell’s Kitchen.

You also could describe it as Rodriguez’s Redemption. An 84 percent foul shooter on the season and 91 percent in this tournament, he had stunningly missed three free throws in the final minutes of regulation. That was part of a team-wide meltdown at the line as VCU slowly lost its grip on the lead.

“Senior year, you don’t want it to end on free throws like that,” Rodriguez said.

It didn’t. Instead, it ended on the biggest bounce pass in VCU history, the one Rodriguez threaded to Burgess for the layup and the winning points in a 72-71 triumph.

“Joey did a great job pass-faking and finding Brad,” Smart said, “and Brad finished the play.”

The play did not, however, finish the game. Seven seconds remained -- time for Florida State to make a last dash down court. The Seminoles put the ball in Kitchen's hands and hoped for a better result than the end of regulation.

The last possession of regulation had been a disaster. Kitchen lost track of time and dribbled out the clock, failing to turn and get up a shot before the buzzer.

“That was poor judgment on my part,” Kitchen said, showing admirable accountability.

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton had watched that transpire while sitting on a pair of unused timeouts. But he said he’d diagrammed the play during the previous timeout and it simply hadn’t panned out.

At the end of overtime, it was more of the same -- Kitchen to the hoop. And again Hamilton thought the play was going to work.

Kitchen drove to within a few feet of the hoop and seemingly had a decent shot -- then passed out to Chris Singleton. Kitchen said he fumbled the ball on his way up and didn’t think he’d get off a good shot, thus the pass. Singleton’s medium-range jump shot was blocked by Rob Brandenberg -- but it was unclear whether that one got off in time, either.

When the horn sounded, the Noles were left to ponder a determined comeback that was undone by late-game ineptitude. And the Rams were free to go wild.

Their ability to defy all expectations has made them the story of this NCAA tournament. A team that was barely granted admittance to the Big Dance dominated its first three games -- then had to win this one in dramatic fashion.

It was VCU’s second late-game escape of the season. The first one occurred in the Colonial Athletic Association quarterfinals, when Skeen barely beat the buzzer with a spinning layup for a 62-60 victory over Drexel.

“If he doesn’t hit that,” Smart said, “we’re not standing here.”

That’s how thin the margin of error was for the Rams just to get into this tournament. Now, in a fitting absurdity for a season that long ago began defying rational explanation, VCU is 40 minutes from the Final Four.

And all the Rams need to do is take down the last No. 1 seed in the field, mighty Kansas.

Earlier Friday, the Jayhaws ripped Richmond by 20. Earlier in the season, the Spiders ripped crosstown rival VCU by 12.

The math says this is a bad matchup for the Rams.

The Rams, just the sixth team seeded 11th or worse to make it this far, will counter that math with their beguiling brand of March magic.

“We’re going to have to strap it up,” Smart said, then smiled. “But I’ve got a feeling our guys are going to be ready.”

Rapid Reaction: VCU 72, FSU 71 (OT)

March, 26, 2011
SAN ANTONIO -- Thoughts from 11th-seeded VCU's thrilling 72-71 win over Florida State.

Overview: Virginia Commonwealth pulled off an overtime victory with a stunningly open inbounds play in the final seconds. Joey Rodriguez found Bradford Burgess going to the basket for a layup with seven seconds left, after VCU had struggled mightily to score in the final minutes of regulation and overtime. A final Florida State drive was stopped when Rob Brandenberg blocked the Seminoles' last shot.

Turning point: With Rodriguez seemingly out of options and almost out of time to get the ball inbounds, he found Burgess for the winning basket.

Key stat: VCU somehow withstood being outrebounded by 20 to win.

Key player: Burgess had a game-high 26 points (which tied his season-high), none bigger than the winning basket.

What's next: VCU's Cinderella ride advances to the regional final, where the 11th-seeded Rams will face No. 1 seed Kansas. The Rams will be just the fifth 11-seed to ever play in the Elite Eight. Florida State goes home to lament a botched final possession of regulation that saw the Seminoles dribble out the clock.

Sweet 16 preview: Florida State vs. VCU

March, 25, 2011

SAN ANTONIO -- Here's a quick preview of the Florida State-Virginia Commonwealth matchup:

No. 11 seed VCU (26-11) vs. No. 10 seed Florida State (23-10) 9:57 p.m. ET (TBS)

What to watch: Turnovers. Specifically, how many do the Seminoles commit and/or the Rams force? VCU is at its best when pressuring opponents and taking away the ball. The Rams are plus-129 in turnover margin in 26 victories, and plus-four in 11 defeats. If they’re not creating havoc, they’re in trouble. Florida State just happens to be susceptible to being sloppy with the ball -- the Seminoles are a minus-25 turnover margin on the season and have 109 more turnovers than assists. FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said Thursday his team has been better with the ball lately, but the Rams figure to be a more in-your-face defensive matchup than Notre Dame or Texas A&M.

Who to watch: Jamie Skeen is VCU’s leading scorer and rebounder, but he’s gotten ample help from Bradford Burgess and Joey Rodriguez in this NCAA run. Burgess has averaged team highs of 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, while Rodriguez has had a ridiculous 23 assists and three turnovers while averaging 12.3 points. The Rams are too diverse to single out Skeen on the scouting report.

For Florida State, guard Derwin Kitchen has been its leading scorer and best player in the NCAAs. But the X-factor is Chris Singleton -- the injured star player who returned to the court in Chicago after missing eight games with a broken foot. Singleton didn’t do a lot in two games, producing five points and four rebounds in 26 minutes of play, but Hamilton said he had two great practices this week. If arguably the nation’s best defender is able to give the Noles more here, he could be the difference between losing and going on to Houston.

Florida State wins if: The Seminoles execute offensively the way they did in Chicago. This is a defense-first program that has started to find its groove on the other end of the court. In victories over Texas A&M and Notre Dame, Florida State improved its season field-goal percentage two points, it’s 3-point percentage five points and its free-throw percentage two points. Perhaps most importantly, the Seminoles had more assists (29) than turnovers (25). Everyone knows the Noles will guard until the last dog dies -- but if they shoot a decent percentage, take care of the ball and get to 70 points, they’ll be tough to beat.

VCU wins if: The Rams hold their own on the glass, hit some perimeter shots and keep FSU unsettled with their pressure defense. In its losses, VCU has been outrebounded by more than eight per game and shot just 31 percent from 3-point range. In its wins, VCU is only a minus-1.2 on the glass and shot 38 percent from 3.

What they’re saying: VCU coach Shaka Smart, on playing the underdog card with his team: “It’s something that we still do. It’s still a factor. I saw somebody had us rated 16th out of the 16 teams still left in the Big Dance, although I think some of my friends in the media are starting to do it on purpose, just to give us something to use. Thank you for those of you who are, because we do use it.”

Florida State’s Bernard James, on no-nonsense coach Hamilton: “He tells you how he wants it, and basically that’s how it’s going to be. I think any good coach needs to be like that. The coaches, they’re there to manage the program, to manage the players. They can’t take their cues from the player. You can’t let a player take over the team or there’s just going to be chaos.”

Noteworthy: Smart got TV analyst and legendary shooter Steve Kerr to take on Rodriguez in a 3-point shooting competition at the end of VCU’s open practice Thursday. Rodriguez won, which surprised his coach. “I thought Steve would win because he’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen,” Smart said. “But Joey stepped in there and knocked them in.” … Florida State is trying to make its third Elite Eight in program history, and first since 1993. It has been to one Final Four (1972). VCU has never been this far before.