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Monday, March 21, 2011
How sweet it is for VCU

CHICAGO -- While the VCU Rams were dining on post-win chicken fingers and french fries, they no doubt imagined serving a third dish of crow to ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. Just a few minutes after stunning Purdue 94-76 to advance to the Sweet 16, the Rams were sprawled out on chairs in the locker room, all smiles as they ate a late dinner of fried goodness.

"I think Jay Bilas probably would change his comments right now," said senior guard Brandon Rozzell. "We're out here beating some of the best teams in the nation, some of the best players in the nation."

Of course, Bilas isn't the only person who pooh-poohed VCU. Analysts and columnists galore criticized the First Four teams chosen by the 10-member tournament selection committee, made up of athletic directors and conference commissioners. ESPN analyst Jay Williams even tweeted, "It's official! My 6-year-old niece knows more about college basketball than the NCAA tournament selection committee. Atrocious."

But after a third straight tournament win -- the last two games routs -- the Rams have proved that they belong, and that anything can happen in this month of madness.

Junior guard Bradford Burgess was the Rams' leading scorer Sunday night, with 23 points plus 11 boards, while diminutive point guard Joey Rodriguez posted 12 points, 11 assists and no turnovers as the undisputed team leader on the floor. The 11th-seeded Rams were simply too quick, too strong and too clean.

Senior forward James Skeen, who had 13 points, said he isn't worried the Rams will let hubris get in their way after three big wins.

"To everybody we play, we're still gonna be little ol' VCU that's not supposed to be here," he told me. "We just gotta keep proving people wrong."

Rozzell doesn't think a few days off will stop the Rams' momentum or cause them to overthink Friday's matchup with Florida State. In fact, he's looking forward to getting back to school, where he knows the team will be campus celebs.

"I think we're going to be excited going back to campus," he said with a big grin. "Just to hear everybody's comments and soak it all in."

Of course, there are two sides to every great upset. Down the hall in the Purdue locker room, tears rimmed the eyes of the Boilermakers, who sat staring into their hands, dazed. All anyone could talk about was an early end to the careers of standout seniors E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson.

"You never wanna see the seniors leave," said junior guard Lewis Jackson. "It just hurts when reality hits that, you know, these two guys won't be back with us."

Said coach Matt Painter of his stars, "You want those guys to go out with a bang, and they deserve better than this. ... They're just two classy guys that have worked hard, and it's unfortunate it's got to come to an end."

Win or lose, the season will end for every team, but only one team gets to end its season with a win. For now, the VCU Rams still have a shot to be that team.