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Thursday, March 31, 2011
How VCU gets it done in recruiting

By Dave Telep
ESPN Recruiting

Two years ago when Shaka Smart assumed control of the VCU Rams from Anthony Grant, who left for Alabama, at his disposal was a future first-round selection, center Larry Sanders. However, it wasn't Sanders who took the Rams to the Final Four but rather a mixture of seniors, shooters, ever-maturing freshmen and impact transfer Jamie Skeen that paved the way to Houston.

Smart took the collection of talent he inherited and crafted the program in his likeness. His task was to take Grant's group, integrate new players and create his own culture within the program. His job was difficult from the beginning and not only because Eric Maynor exhausted his eligibility. Smart was about to start his era without sophomore guard Joey Rodriguez, who quickly announced he would finish up his career at Division II Rollins College.

Joey Rodriguez
Where would VCU be without its floor general, Joey Rodriguez?

For two months, Rodriguez was out the door before asking Smart if he could tear up his transfer papers and return to the Rams. Imagine the Rams without Rodriguez. How good would Rollins have been with him? Regardless, Rodriguez came around and the rest is history. It's a good thing Rodriguez came back because now he's in a place neither of his famous high school teammates -- Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons -- ever got: the Final Four. No matter how well Rodriguez played or how hard he hoped to be recruited, the spotlight never found him. While Parsons and Calathes split for powerhouse Florida, Rodriguez settled in on Massachusetts and VCU before ultimately picking Grant's Rams.

A native Floridian, Rodriguez hails from an area right on the edge of VCU's current geographical recruiting profile. Typically, you'll see the Rams in gyms from northern Virginia to the Sunshine State. Rob Brandenburg and D.J. Haley, a pair of freshmen, are the only scholarship players from outside VCU's typical recruiting profile.

Under Smart, the program employs a "Havoc" style designed to wear down opponents, force turnovers and give the Rams a free-flowing style on offense. To wreak havoc, Smart needs motivated players, guys who are excited about being Rams. Smart's profile -- and he's all about having a vision in recruiting -- calls for athletic players with length. Shooters are always welcome and the Kenyon College grad values intellect both on and off the court.

Jamie Skeen (Charlotte, N.C./North Mecklenburg)
Class: 2006 | Position: PF
It's ironic that Smart's former boss, Billy Donovan, once courted Skeen for the Gators. It turns out Smart got the chance to coach Skeen after he transferred from Wake Forest. At Wake, Skeen didn't quite fulfill his top 100 high school tag, but for the Rams he's been an all-league player and the team's go-to guy in some critical contests.

Ed Nixon (St. Petersburg, Fla./Lakewood)
Class: 2007 | Position: SG
It wasn't until the spring of his senior year that Nixon was offered a scholarship by Grant. A native of Florida himself, Grant worked the state hard and had formed a strong relationship with Nixon's traveling team, the Jacksonville Lee Bulls.

Brandon Rozzell (Highland Springs, Va./Highland Springs)
Class: 2007 | Position: SG
Rozzell didn't have many suitors coming out of high school. The Rams didn't beat anyone of note to get Rozzell and his recruitment didn't require a signing ceremony or bring the program much hoopla outside of the local product, local school angle. In fact, the idea was to redshirt Rozzell and it wasn't until a few games into his freshman season that Grant inserted him into the lineup for his long-range touch. It's that proficiency from behind the arc that bailed the Rams out of a few tight spots during the Final Four sprint.

Bradford Burgess (Richmond, Va./Benedictine)
Class: 2008 | Position: SG
At the time, no one knew it but Benedictine High School might have had two NBA players on its roster back in 2008. Burgess wasn't the best player on his own high school team. That honor belonged to Ed Davis, the former Tar Heel turned national champion in Chapel Hill. Burgess visited St. Joseph's before ultimately signing late with the Rams. He's now regarded as the best NBA prospect Smart has in the program.

Toby Veal (Savannah, Ga./Johnson)
Class: 2008 | Position: SF
Veal's arrival at his final collegiate destination turned out to be a circuitous route to success. He went with his highest offer out of high school and it turned out to be Colorado. Veal spent one season in Boulder before transferring to play juco ball in Florida.

Juvonte Reddic (Winston Salem, N.C./Quality Education)
Class: 2010 | Position: C
It happens every year, high-major programs go through the season and stumble into the spring looking for big men. Last year, Reddic was the flavor of the late signing period and picked up interest from Georgetown and an offer from Maryland. He picked the Rams because he wasn't enamored with the highest level, rather the relationship he formed with the coaches.

Rob Brandenburg (Gahanna, Ohio/Lincoln)
Class: 2010 | Position: SG
If you want to know how competitive Smart is, look no further than the recruitment of Brandenburg. Akron coach Keith Dambrot is one of Smart's confidants and mentor. However, the relationship didn't prevent Smart from sneaking into Akron and stealing Brandenburg from not only Dambrot but Butler and Wright State, each of which offered and pursued the talented guard. However, the Rams got an assist from an old friend of the program with Brandenburg.

"Really, it was Eric Maynor and Coach's relationship with Rob," assistant Will Wade said. "He loved Eric Maynor."

D.J. Haley (Palmdale, Calif./Palmdale)
Class: 2010 | Position: C
Before reuniting with Smart from their time at Clemson under Oliver Purnell, Wade recruited for Harvard, where he found out about the lanky center. Haley attended the same high school that produced Craig Brackins for Iowa State.

The Rams and Drake were excited that Haley was around late last spring and couldn't pass on his size, so they battled for him. Haley, a highly decorated student, found a kindred spirit in his future coach.

"They were reciting the periodic table to each other one night on the phone," Wade said of Smart and Haley. "It was unbelievable. I was sitting there and couldn't believe they were talking about the periodic table and we were about to sign this kid."

Dave Telep is the senior basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. His college basketball scouting service is used by more than 225 colleges and numerous NBA teams. He can be reached at espndt@gmail.com. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter.