The clock seemed like it was standing still, and the crowd was getting edgy. It was Dec. 1, and Belmont was bearing down on VCU. What was once a 21-point lead had been hacked down to just five. The Rams desperately needed to stop the bleeding. They needed to find a playmaker.
Junior Rob Brandenberg was 3-of-10 from the field at the time, but he never hesitated. The Ohio native buried back-to-back jumpers, one of them a 3-pointer, and scored six points in all during one 90-second sequence that essentially secured an important non-conference win. Brandenberg finished with 14 points and a pocketful of confidence.
“It was common sense for me,” Brandenberg said. “[Briante Weber] did a good job getting me the basketball and my teammates gave me enough space to operate, but that’s just coach having confidence in me, sticking with me even when things aren’t going the way I want them. But that’s coach Smart. He has confidence in everybody.”
A year ago, there’s no guarantee that Brandenberg would have the confidence to take, and make, those shots against Belmont, but it appears Smart’s trust in his junior guard is having a trickle-down effect. Brandenberg didn’t feel fear and didn’t hesitate. He just played.
Brandenberg burst onto the scene in 2010-11 as a freshman. Subbing for an injured Brandon Rozzell, Brandenberg recorded games of 23 and 22 points, the most by a VCU freshman since Kendrick Warren during the 1990-91 season. He was active, fluid and poised. He hit a critical 3-pointer in VCU’s NCAA First Four win over USC and later recorded the “Block Heard ‘Round VCU” to seal a Sweet 16 victory over Florida State. He looked like a star in waiting.
But as a sophomore, Brandenberg’s jump shot abandoned him. He shot just 35 percent from the field and averaged 9.0 points per game. When the slump was at its worst, it was hard to watch. During one eight-game stretch in January, Brandenberg shot 18 percent (8-of-45), including 13 percent (3-of-24) from 3-point range and averaged 4.0 points per game. In a game against Georgia State on Jan. 4, he finished 0-of-10 from the field.
As the missed shots piled up in the box score, they also started to accumulate in his mind. Brandenberg had never faced such adversity on the basketball court, and his confidence was shattered.
“Last year was the first time that I was just flat out not playing the way I should’ve been playing or the way I could’ve been playing,” he said. “I just learned about myself that life is all about how you respond. It’s all about how you respond when things don’t go your way or when they do go your way.”
Brandenberg sought counsel in Smart, who helped rebuild his confidence. Sometimes they talked basketball, but other times, they just talked. Smart hoped to change Brandenberg’s frame of mind. Their conversations, which continue to this day, focused on finding the carefree, fearless Brandenberg from the previous year.
In addition, midway through last season, Brandenberg, Darius Theus and Troy Daniels began holding late-night shooting sessions with then-Assistant Coach Jamion Christian. Christian aimed to iron out Brandenberg’s mechanical flaws with repetitions. Brandenberg says seeing shots go through the net eased his mind as well.
Even on the road, Brandenberg and Christian tried to keep their late-night shootarounds going. On many VCU road trips, a group of players and coaches will go catch a movie, while the rest stay at the hotel to clear their heads. But last season at UNC Wilmington, Christian and Brandenberg went to the gym and ran through shooting drills. Brandenberg responded the next night with a season-high 21 points and hit a pair of critical free throws in a 63-59 win.
“That game was kind of where I got back to my old self,” Brandenberg said.
In the final 14 games of the season, Brandenberg shot a respectable 41 percent (49-of-120) from the field and averaged 10 points per game. This year, Brandenberg has continued to make gains, averaging 10.5 points per game while shooting 41 percent from the field, including 37 percent from three. Brandenberg appears more at ease.
“I think he’s playing more with what I call approach goals, as opposed to avoidance goals,” Smart said recently. “Avoidance goals are when you’re playing not to mess up and you don’t want to lose. Approach goals are when you’re going after something. You’re just going to go get it. I think Rob is much more on the offensive and being more aggressive.”
“For some of last year I wasn’t playing my game because I didn’t want to miss,” Brandenberg said. “[Now], I’m going to make this shot. If I don’t make it, I’m going to make the next shot. I think that’s the mentality that I’ve been working on this past summer, that if I struggle, so what, I’m going to continue to play my game. I’m not going to play to not mess up.”
In the Rams’ biggest win of the season to date, Brandenberg buried all five of his 3-point attempts, each with a varying degree of difficulty, to key a 78-65 upset of No. 19 Memphis. There was no hint of doubt. Brandenberg knew what the Rams needed at that moment, and he delivered. Smart agrees that he’s seeing a different player than the one that searched desperately for answers last year.
“Rob’s a guy who in the past if he hasn’t played well it certainly has affected his confidence,” Smart said. “I think everything starts with your belief in yourself as a person, and Rob has more self assuredness now. He just believes in himself, but it’s still a work in progress. He’s still got a long way to go.”