RAMS HOPE TO DRAW ON 2009 EXPERIENCE
DAYTON, Ohio – In 20 years, the four remaining players from VCU’s 2009 NCAA Tournament team – seniors Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell, as well as junior Bradford Burgess – may look back fondly on that experience, but now, even two years later, it’s still a sore subject. In that contest, the Rams made a valiant second-half rally against UCLA, but lost a 65-64 decision when Eric Maynor’s final jumper fell short at the buzzer.
“I just remember The last shot and how we lost,” said Burgess. “It was a great game. We were down big and came back and made a run in the second half. We just didn’t pull it out.”
Rodriguez and Burgess were starters on that squad. Rodriguez’s memories of that night in Philadelphia are similarly jaded.
“Every time I think about that game I think about the ending,” Rodriguez, who scored eight points and dished out two assists in that game, said. I remember how we came back and that last play by Eric, that last shot. It just frustrates me. I remember the feeling in the locker room after too, it was Eric’s last game and how emotional it was for everybody.”
As much as it still hurts, that experience may prove valuable for the Rams, who are aiming for VCU’s first NCAA win since 2007 when when they take on USC Wednesday at 9 p.m. at University of Dayton Arena.
“I remember how much it hurt to lose, so I really don’t want to experience that again,” commented Nixon.
“We always wanted to get back here and now we’re back here with a chance against another Pac-10 team and we want to try to go at them,” Rodriguez said.
VCU’s four NCAA veterans can also provide leadership for some of the team’s younger players, who otherwise might get caught up in the production that is the NCAA Tournament.
“We just tell them don’t get caught up in the media. It’s just a game,” Nixon said. “It’s do or die, so we’ve got to do it from the start.”
Following the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday, a few ESPN analysts, notably Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale, were highly critical of the tournament committee’s inclusion of UAB and VCU on this year’s field. Those criticisms did not go unnoticed by Rams’ Head Coach Shaka Smart and his players, who now have a bucket full of bulletin board material to motivate them.
“It didn’t make us angry, I think it made us I guess a bit hungrier,” Burgess said. “I think this year the team has been our best when our backs have been against the wall and all the odds have been against us. I think this team wants to show everybody that we deserve to be here and we can play with the best talent in the tournament.”
“If somebody’s doubting you in anything that you do, and something that you well, you want to prove them wrong, and that’s what we’re going to try to go out and do,” said senior forward Jamie Skeen.
DAYTON HOMECOMING FOR SMART
While the VCU players will be competing at UD Arena for the first time, Shaka Smart will be returning to his roots, in a sense.
From 2003-06, Smart served as the director of basketball operations on Oliver Purnell’s staff at the University of Dayton. It was Smart’s first Division I job, an experience he looks back on fondly.
“There are a lot of special memories,” Smart said. “It’s an unbelievably special place, and when we came in, we walked down the tunnel and the different games crossed my mind walking down the tunnel with Oliver [Purnell] and Ron Jirsa and Josh Postorino and Frank Smith, because every game we would walk down the tunnel. Of course we won a whole lot more than we lost here. It’s a place that I talk about quite a bit.”
BATTLE DOWN LOW
When asked to compare USC to a familiar opponent, Smart, Burgess and Rodriguez all pointed to Old Dominion and Drexel, teams with rugged low post players.
The Trojans are led by 6-foot-10 forwards Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stephenson. Vucevic averages better than 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. He can also step out and shoot the 3-pointer. Vucevic is 29-of-82 (.354) from beyond the arc this season.
“I heard he’s an NBA prospect, so that excites me already. I love playing against people who are going to be in the NBA. I like matching up against them,” said Skeen, who will likely guard Vucevic. “But what I have to do is limit his touches and make sure he doesn’t get deep post position. That’s for sure because he can finish with either hand.”
Stephenson, a senior, is averaging 10 points and nine rebounds a game. Vucevic and Stephenson rank first and second, respectively, in the Pac-10 in rebounding. As a team, the Trojans rank sixth in the Pac-10 in rebounding margin (+1.2). USC also leads its conference in scoring defense at 62.8 points per game.