Sunday, March 20, 2011
VCU keeps proving doubters wrong
By Gene Wojciechowski
CHICAGO -- Dear NCAA selection committee,
We're sorry for busting your you-know-whats about inviting VCU to the Big Dance. Not only do the Rams belong, but if they keep kneecapping higher seeds in this NCAA tournament -- like they did against late, great Purdue on Sunday evening at the United Center -- they could win this whole thing.
Whole thing, as in national championship.
You think we're kidding? Ask the third-seeded Boilermakers, who were stuffed down the tournament garbage disposal by a VCU team that, in essence, began the postseason as a No. 17 seed. The Rams not only won, but they won by a city block, beating Purdue 94-76, and advancing to the school's first Sweet 16.
It was the third NCAA victory in five days for VCU, which had to sweat out Selection Sunday a week earlier. The committee snuck the Rams in as an at-large "First Four" entry and then held its breath as the critics blowtorched the decision.
The fellas can breathe now. VCU beat No. 11-seeded USC by 13 last Wednesday evening to reach the field-of-64 dinner table. Then it beat sixth-seeded Georgetown by 18 last Friday night. And then it did the same to Purdue -- which hadn't given up that many points in a game the entire season.
"I think the committee is sitting back smiling now," said VCU senior guard Brandon Rozzell. "I'd tell them, 'Thanks for putting us in a position to make a name for ourselves.'"
The Rams are putting the madness in March. They're not only making a name for themselves, they're making a mockery of most office pool brackets. All those who had VCU advancing to the Sweet 16 (VCU alums, students and school personnel don't count) and winning its three games by an average of 16.3 points, please raise your hands.
|Bradford Burgess scored 23 points and added 8 rebounds in VCU's win over Purdue.|
"I still think people think it's luck," said senior forward Jamie Skeen. "Even after two wins we still couldn't get anybody to love us."
They're loving you now, Jamie.
I sat next to a Florida State assistant coach during the Purdue-VCU game. Late in the first half, as the Rams were on their way to scoring 42 points by the break, the assistant turned and said, "If they keep playing like this, they'll be playing in the Sweet 16."
If they keep playing like this, said Skeen, "I don't think anybody can beat us."
He's right. The Rams shot 56.9 percent for the game, 65.5 percent in the second half. Six VCU players finished in double figures. Point guard Joey Rodriguez scored 12 points and added 11 assists. His nickname is "Boo Boo," but you wouldn't have known it Sunday night. He didn't have a single turnover in 34 minutes of play.
About midway through the second half, after Bradford Burgess hit a 3-pointer to put VCU ahead, 65-46, former Georgetown head coach John Thompson Jr. had seen enough. Thompson, an analyst on the national radio broadcast of the game (and father of Hoyas coach John Thompson III), turned around in his courtside seat, looked at the FSU assistant and just smiled.
It was a smile of appreciation, of admiration. The most points Purdue had given up all season was 87 to Ohio State, which ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country. VCU added seven points to that.
"I thought our guys were flawless the last seven, eight minutes," said VCU coach Shaka Smart.
The last seven or eight? Purdue couldn't have stopped the Rams with cement barriers. VCU scored 48 points in the paint, 14 on fast breaks. Its bench outscored Purdue's subs, 29-5.
I think the committee is sitting back smiling now. I'd tell them, 'Thanks for putting us in a position to make a name for ourselves.'
-- VCU guard Brandon Rozzell
"You watch them in a four- or five-game stretch and you literally think they can beat anybody in the country," said Purdue coach Matt Painter. "And that was an honest thought that I had before we played them. I made that statement: VCU can beat anybody in the country on a neutral court. And I believe that."
USC, Georgetown and Purdue believe it. VCU believes it. Anybody who doesn't believe it might want to review the VCU game tapes of the last three games.
"First of all," said Smart, "anybody can beat anybody."
Except that the Rams are beating everybody. A Pac-10 team. A Big East team. A Big Ten team. They'll play an ACC team (Florida State) in the next round. Hoops pedigree doesn't matter to them.
Even more impressive, they're doing it with the second-youngest coach in the tournament. Smart, 33, is completing his second season at VCU. He probably won't make it to his third.
"We'll do all we can to keep him," said VCU athletic director Norwood Teague, who knows Smart soon will be romanced by bigger programs. "But if you're going to worry about that, you're not going to enjoy the moment."
The Rams are enjoying every moment of this bracket busting. They don't even mind sharing the moment with Atlantic 10 member Richmond. They share the same city and now they share the same Sweet 16.
At season's beginning, Smart unveiled his team slogan: "Our time. Right now."
Who knew it'd still be their time in late March? Wait -- the selection committee apparently did.
"I'd say to the committee, 'Thank you for believing in us,'" said Rodriguez. "Hopefully they'd say something back to us, like, 'Thank you for proving us right.'"
Don't worry, Joey. Somewhere they are.
|Shaka Smart's coaching stock keeps rising with every VCU win.|
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.