FINAL FOUR MEMORIES NEVER FADE

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chefnixon-o

I hope, like former Ram Ed Nixon, you exercised your right to vote Tuesday.

POST ‘DAGGER’ ERA MOLDED IN SAN JUAN

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Kirill Pishchalnikov defends Arkansas' Charles Thomas during the 2007 Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

Kirill Pishchalnikov defends Arkansas’ Charles Thomas during the 2007 Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

2013 PUERTO RICO TIP-OFF (pdf)

The post-Dagger days began in Puerto Rico.

It was in San Juan in 2007, at the first Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where we tried to find out if VCU, as a Goliath exterminator, had staying power. Nearly a week after rolling designated milk jug Maryland-Eastern Shore in the 2007-08 season-opener, VCU headed to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Anthony Grant, was, as Shaka Smart is today, THE rising star among college coaches. Eric Maynor, whose “Dagger” with 1.8 seconds left gave VCU its unforgettable, 79-77 upset of Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the previous March, was a certified star. You could have sold his image on commemorative plates on QVC alongside those bearing Dale Earnhardt’s, if the NCAA allowed that sort of kitsch.

But while Grant and Maynor were known quantities, magnetic drawing cards with the goods to back it up, the rest was up in the air. People love NCAA Tournament upsets, they embrace the Princetons and the Bryce Drews, the Eric Maynors, the Cleveland States and the La Salles for weeks each March. But when the lights go out, most of them fade from the national consciousness. We rode high on the hog for months, but secretly, we wondered if Maynor’s “Dagger” was VCU’s 15 minutes; If the illogical food chain of college hoops would gobble us up and cast us back from whence we came, back to the obscurity of mid-majordom.

The tournament began in earnest. Grant’s recruiting class that year included Larry Sanders, Joey Rodriguez, Lance Kearse, Ed Nixon, Brandon Rozzell and Myk Brown, and transfer Kirill Pishchalnikov was also on board. Much of the publicity, and for a VCU recruiting class up to that point, it was significant, focused on Kearse and Rodriguez. Sanders was intriguing, but very much an unknown.

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R.E.S.P.E.C.T IS SPELLED E.S.P.Y.

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‘sup?

GRADUATION…SWAG

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Really nice video here from VCURamNation.com, which gave Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell and Ed Nixon a camera to use during graduation. Special guest appearances in this video by Larry Sanders, Shaka Smart, Anthony Grant, Darius Theus, the back of Troy Daniels’ head and others.

IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS

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I guess you can have your ice cream and cake and eat it too.

I had Joey Rodriguez and Ed Nixon stop by the office today for a couple of projects I’m working on right now. This story came up, but it’s not necessarily something I’m going to use elsewhere.

When VCU went to Norfolk to play Old Dominion during the 2009-10 season, the Monarchs pulled away late for the win. Many believe it’s no coincidence that ODU’s “Ice Cream and Cake” song plays during the under four minute media timeout of the second half and that the Monarchs often close well at home. ODU certainly did that day, turning a 68-66 VCU lead into a 73-70 Monarch victory in the final 3:08.

Strength and Conditioning Coach Daniel Roose noticed the correlation. Last summer, he had the Rams lifting weights to “Ice Cream and Cake”. When the Rams faced ODU in Norfolk on Feb. 12, they were ready. VCU was holding a 52-50 lead when the final media timeout came with 3:11 left. Cue “Ice Cream and Cake”, which normally sends the home crowd into a frenzy (although nobody really can understand why). This time, the Rams were unfazed.

“We were dancing in the huddle,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think Coach Smart even said anything.”

“When they played it, I think that it helped us more than it helped them,” Nixon said.

Nixon’s argument appears to hold water. The Rams outscored ODU 7-0 the rest of the way in a 59-50 victory.

RAMS SOAK IT IN NEWFOUND ATTENTION, SHARPEN FOCUS

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RICHMOND, Va. – Brandon Rozzell had to leave his biology lab a few minutes early Tuesday. After speaking with his professor, he made his way towards the door. As he did, the class gave him a standing ovation. It’s safe to say things are different here than a week ago.

The VCU campus may look the same, but it’s been changed by the men’s basketball team’s remarkable run to the Sweet 16. The Rams defeated USC, Georgetown and Purdue in convincing fashion last week to earn a Southwest Region quarterfinal matchup with Florida State on Friday in San Antonio. Seeded 11th in their region, the Rams have become the Cinderella story of March Madness, energizing VCU’s downtown campus. VCU returned from Chicago on Sunday evening and the response on campus and in the media has been unprecedented.

“It’s been great,” said senior Ed Nixon. “Ram Nation. Love them. People have been honking horns on our way to class and just congratulating us. It’s been great.”

By the time Sports Information Director Scott Day boarded the team bus following VCU’s win over Purdue, he had 30 interview requests. As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, that number had ballooned to 129. No one has been spared. Even freshmen Reco McCarter and Heath Houston, who are redshirting and have not appeared in a game this season, have been requested. Players have been bombarded by congratulatory texts and phone calls.

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WOW FACTOR: RAMS SHRED PURDUE, MARCH INTO SWEET 16 FOR FIRST TIME

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Joey Rodriguez scored 12 points and had 11 assists in Sunday's win over Purdue

CHICAGO – Ed Nixon tried to craft his best composed, politically correct, answer, but teammate Brandon Rozzell wasn’t having any of it. As Nixon tried to describe how it felt to be headed to the Sweet 16, the first such trip in VCU history, Rozzell – amidst a jubilant locker room celebration – butted into the conversation.

“Woooooowwww. Wow,” Rozzell blurted.

Far from an eloquent, but dead on in its raw emotion and simplicity, Rozzell’s sentiment was essentially perfect. Wow.

Playing their third NCAA Tournament game in five days, the 11th-seeded Rams shot 57 percent from the field to shred third-seeded Purdue’s vaunted defense in an NCAA Tournament third round 94-76 victory.

Make no mistake, this was the biggest win in VCU history. There’s room for you to debate whether Eric Maynor’s “Dagger” against Duke was a more memorable moment or whether the powerhouse squads of the J.D. Barnett era in the early 80’s were better from top to bottom, but there is no dispute that Sunday’s victory was the program’s greatest.

Superior defense keyed VCU in first and second round wins over USC and Georgetown, respectively, but the Rams’ triumph over Purdue highlighted a multifaceted, up-tempo offense clicking on all cylinders. The Boilermakers boasted one of the top defenses in the Big Ten and had allowed more than 80 points once this season, but the Rams made Purdue look ordinary, and, at times, even helpless.

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NCAA NOTEBOOK 1.0

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Joey Rodriguez looks on during VCU's NCAA open practice Tuesday.

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.”

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SENIOR SALUTE

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It’s hard to believe it’s already been four years. This is the first VCU class I’ve been able to follow from signing day to senior day, so excuse me if I’m a bit melodramatic. But it’s hardly familiarity that leads me to feel this way. It’s also the nearly 100 victories, a 22-game home winning streak, the Oklahoma upset, the 2009 CAA Championship, the near-miss in the NCAA Tournament against UCLA, the NIT at Madison Square Garden and more Wachovia 3-point t-shirts than I can count. Here’s a few of my thoughts on VCU’s four seniors.

JOEY RODRIGUEZ
In the moments following Rodriguez’s two free throws that gave VCU a 68-67 win at Wichita State with .8 seconds left, amidst an impossibly chaotic environment, I received a text that read something like this:

“That Joseph Rodriguez is a fine young man with impressive intestinal fortitude. It’s quite remarkable.”

Okay, so I may or may not have edited that for the Disney set and the soccer moms, but those free throws, and the “constitution” necessary to make them, say a boatload about Rodriguez’s career at VCU.

Raise your hand if in 2007 you thought that Rodriguez would finish in the top five on VCU’s career lists for assists, steals and 3-pointers. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Much of his success has been a product of his ability to remain cool under fire. Rodriguez fully admits to reading the critiques of internet armchair quarterbacks, allowing them to fuel his own desire.

He’s been a joy to watch from my perspective because Rodriguez plays with reckless abandon, because he’s not afraid physical or mental abuse and seems to revel in his teammates’ success. Earlier this season, he set a school-record with 17 assists in a game, and it looked like the most fun he’d had as a Ram.

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DUKE DROPPINGS

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HARRISONBURG, Va. – If it seems like you’ve seen this before from Joey Rodriguez, it’s probably because you have.

On Saturday, Rodriguez showed his knack for clutch shooting again when his buried a critical jumper with time winding down to help lift VCU to a 70-66 win over James Madison at the Convocation Center.

With VCU holding a 62-60 lead, Rodriguez took a handoff from senior Ed Nixon, turned and drilled a long two-pointer with 22.4 seconds left. The shot made it a two-possession game, a margin that proved insurmountable for the Dukes.

Rodriguez has shown a penchant for this before. Most notably, the 5-10 senior guard connected on clutch 3-pointer in victories over Old Dominion and Drexel earlier this season. Never short on confidence, Rodriguez is happy to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

“That whole last two minutes I wanted to shoot the ball,” Rodriguez said. “This whole year, [I've] just wanted to have the ball at the end of the game, just wanting to make big plays. Hopefully, I keep it up.”

On Saturday, Rodriguez was 0-of-5 from the field when he swished that baseline jumper to turn away JMU and give the Rams their 10th win in 11 games.

“It really doesn’t matter if he’s made shots earlier in the game,” said VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart. “Those are the shots he lives for.”

Rodriguez finished with six points, a team-high seven rebounds and five assists.

THE DENZEL BOWLES PROJECT
James Madison center Denzel Bowles’ status as the CAA’s best big man is rarely questioned. He didn’t do much to prove pundits wrong on Saturday with a 22-point, nine-rebound, three-block performance. While those are commendable numbers, VCU’s ability to slow the Dukes’ top threat in the second half was a major factor in the Rams’ victory.

Bowles hurt the Rams in a variety of ways in the first half, scoring in the low post, in transition and with 10 to 15-foot jumpers. The JMU senior hit 7-of-8 shots to start the game. However, he was 3-of-8 from the field the rest of the way and had eight points, a reasonable sum, in the second half.

Despite Bowles hot start, Smart didn’t make any major adjustments in the locker room.

“We just said that we needed to be better,” Smart said. “I thought we made some mistakes in some coverages in what they do. Bowles got a layup off a ball screen and roll that we should’ve covered up. We gave a couple up on the back end of the press in the first half. So, we cleaned that stuff up and we really dedicated ourselves to half court defense. We knew today was going to be one of those games and that’s what allowed us to win the game.”

Bowles is particularly dangerous when he gets the ball down low, where he’s able to use his 6-foot-11 frame and touch to score with impressive efficiency. So, the best way of stopping Bowles is to not have to stop him at all.

“You’ve got to do your work early on Bowles,” Smart said. “You can’t allow him to get the ball where he wants it. I thought our guys did a nice job taking away the high-low pass. They ran a variety of plays to get to high-low situations and Bowles is a load in there.  Our guys did a nice job of taking that away. “

DEEP THOUGHTS (BY JACK HANDEY)

  • I felt like this is precisely the type of game that the Rams would’ve lost last year. In a lot of ways, it seems like further proof of this team’s maturation.
  • Ed Nixon has been quietly outstanding since Brandon Rozzell’s injury. Although Rozzell did play today, I’m going to include today’s game in this. Since Rozzell broke his hand prior to the William & Mary game on Jan. 12, Nixon has averaged 10.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, while also playing outstanding defense most nights. Nixon contributed nine points, seven rebounds and four assists. Also, between you and me, he should’ve been credited with a steal and a really, really obvious block that somehow didn’t make the books. He’s really been the Rams’ unsung hero this season.
  • Jamie Skeen is 9-of-19 from 3-point range in his last eight games, including two huge ones on Saturday. That’s your starting five-man, Rams’ fans.
  • The Rams did a really good job of capitalizing on the speed, or lack thereof, of James Madison’s post players, Bowles and Rayshawn Goins. On at least three occasions, Rodriguez threw long outlet passes to freshman Juvonte Reddic for easy offensive opportunities.

    TOP QUOTES

  • “He’s used to doing that and he’s got really, really, a lot of guts. He’s a guy who you want to step up and take that shot because he’s a guy that knows he can make it.” — Shaka Smart on Joey Rodriguez’ baseline jumper with 22.4 seconds left.
  • “I’m not going to be hesitant at all. I’m going to go at him. Everybody else is probably scared of him, but I’m not. I don’t care, I’m going at him.” — Jamie Skeen on playing against Denzel Bowles.

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