YOU’RE THE BEST AROUND (OF THE LAST 17 YEARS…)

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With VCU’s decision to bolt the Colonial Athletic Association still fresh in our minds, maybe now is a good time to take stock of the 17 years the Rams spent in the league. It was a good run and frankly, the CAA’s Virginia-centric appeal was one of the things that made it fun for VCU fans. I can honestly say it’s one of the things I’ll miss, times change.

VCU has won 42 CAA championships since joining the league for the 1994-95 season. The Rams’ 36 titles in men’s sports are the most in league history. The VCU Baseball team will have a chance to add to that mark later this month. The Rams have won 13 championships in men’s tennis, eight in golf and five each in men’s basketball and baseball. Other sports were not as fortunate, but still enjoyed a great deal of success. Here, I’m going to look at the best team from each VCU program of the CAA era.

BASEBALL: 2003 (46-13, 17-3 CAA, CAA Champions, 1-2 NCAAs)
This was a legitimately hard decision. You could make compelling arguments for the 1998 and 2001 teams. This is one of the few picks that required some back-and-forth debate.

But for me, the 2003 squad was a shade better. Not only did they dominate the CAA regular season and sweep the conference tournament, but the Rams also led the country in ERA that season (2.54). Four pitchers, Cla Meredth (6th), Justin Orenduff (1st), Sean Marshall 6th) and Brian Marshall (5th), were selected in the first six rounds of the MLB Draft.  Four other players were also eventually drafted. Sean Marshall and Cla Meredith played in the majors.

MEN’S BASKETBALL: 2010-11 (28-12, 12-6 CAA, NCAA Final Four)
While I’m picking a non-CAA champion here, I doubt I’ll get few arguments. VCU’s run to the Final Four in 2011 pretty much trumps everything. During the regular season the Rams were equally magnificent and maddening, but flipped a switch in March. VCU reached the CAA Championship Game, upsetting ranked and heavily-favored George Mason in the process. Despite losing to Old Dominion in the title bout, VCU received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where the Rams toppled USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas on the way to history.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: 2008-09 (26-7, 15-3 CAA, NCAA First Round)
The Rams didn’t win the CAA crown this season (Drexel did), but behind eventual WNBA first round pick Quanitra Hollingsworth, the Rams earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time via an at-large berth. The Rams met Rutgers in the first round and gave the Scarlet Knights a run for their money. In addition to Hollingsworth, future All-American and WNBA Draftee Courtney Hurt was a freshman on this squad.

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LAST SEASON COULD INFLUENCE THIS YEAR’S RAMS-SHOCKERS TILT

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Bradford Burgess scored 17 points in a 68-67 win over Wichita State last season.

PORTLAND, Ore. – The calendar says 2012, but 2011 will have a heavy influence on VCU’s NCAA Tournament second round match-up with Wichita State.

The Rams and Shockers were paired together during last season’s BracketBusters contest, won 68-67 by VCU. The victory likely sent the Rams to the NCAA Tournament, where they plowed through the field on the way to the Final Four. The Shockers, meanwhile, were relegated to the NIT, but pulled together and won championship over Alabama.

Although many of the stars from last year are gone, especially in VCU’s case, the players that do return have invaluable tournament experience.

“I think the fact that we do have several guys on our team that have played in six NCAA Tournament games and won five of them is something we can really draw on,” said VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart. “They know that there’s going to be some nerves early on. There just is when you’re playing in the NCAA Tournament. I think they can help our younger guys that haven’t been here.”

In addition to their familiarity with tournament play, these two teams are familiar with each other. For one, Wichita State hasn’t forgotten that 1-point defeat at the hands of VCU.

“It’s something that’s been in the back of our minds for a long time now,” Shockers’ center Garrett Stutz said. “They were a great team last year, and when they beat us, that kind of gave them momentum into their NCAA Tournament run. So, there’s definitely still some…I wouldn’t call it rivalry, but still some motivation for us.”

It’s not just motivation for Wichita State. The Shockers also have a game against VCU’s “Havoc” defense under their belt. In the past, VCU has played particularly well against teams that weren’t familiar or had little time to prepare for their system. Teams that press as much as VCU does are rare, giving opponents few chances to see swarming full court pressure. The Rams won’t have the element of surprise Thursday.

“That definitely helps because we played them last year,” said WSU senior Joe Ragland. “We played them and played them real tough.”

PHOTO OF THE DAY: HELLO FROM PORTLAND

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I don’t have an iPhone or anything, so this is the best I can do for now, but here’s the Rams running through drills at their open practice at the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore.

MOTIVATED BURGESS SPURS VCU TO NEW HEIGHTS

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Bradford Burgess is averaging 15.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots in VCU's last six games.

RICHMOND, Va. – After seven days on the road, I finally had a chance to get home and spend some time with the wife. The Rams’ Sweet 16 run dominated the conversation. At one point, she said, “Bradford Burgess is playing out of his mind right now.” God, I love this woman.

More than just that fact that she enjoys dissecting Northeastern’s flex offense, I was pumped because she hit on something I had been thinking about for a couple of days, that Burgess is playing the best basketball of his life.

Since the start of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, Burgess has clearly been a different player. Statistically speaking, he’s averaging 15.7 points and 8.2 rebounds in six postseason games, improvements on his season averages of 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds. Burgess has also blocked nine shots, handed out 12 assists, ripped six steals and played terrific defense in the last six games.

It’s no coincidence that Burgess’ recent outstanding play has corresponded with some of the best basketball VCU of the season. It’s rare to see a player just “turn it on” and VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart believes there’s a reason Burgess is having breakout success in the postseason.
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LONE STAR DREAMING

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John Leguizamo says, "Go Rams!"As I type this, the VCU pep rally is raging outside. I opened the window to let the sounds of the pep band waft into my office. It feels good, real good.

Too bad I won’t be in San Antonio to see this through. My brother is getting married Friday, so I’ll be in Ohio this weekend. I knew this was coming, but didn’t want to acknowledge it until we got through last week. I told my wife, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” Well, we’re at the bridge.

In the end, the choice was easy, but I’d be lying if I said that not going didn’t feel a little bit like a kick to the gut. For the duration of the weekend, Mike Litos of CAAHoops.com will be taking over Around The Horns, much like when they replaced Aunt Viv with a different actor on Fresh Prince of Bel Air and didn’t say anything. Trust me, you’re in good hands. I’ll have at least one more feature on Brad Burgess before I let go of the reigns for a few days.

The last 10 days have been amazing, and I want more than anything for it to continue. If the Rams can get through this weekend, then I’ll move mountains to be in Houston, but one thing at a time.

Campus has been abuzz these last three days. Additionally, the amount of media coverage we’re getting is off the charts. I literally spent and hour and a half today walking around campus today with ESPN’s Kenny Mayne for a piece that will run on Thursday’s 6 p.m. Sportscenter. Pretty cool stuff.

We’re in uncharted territory here at VCU, so enjoy the ride. The fact that my mom knows what’s going on in the NCAA Tournament means it’s serious. My dad called me yesterday and gushed about Joey Rodriguez. My buddy, who had maybe seen us play once before last week has been texting me throughout this experience. He also texted me to ask me why John Leguizamo was running the point, but whatever. It’s progress.

It’s safe to say that we may never experience anything quite like this again. Not to say that VCU won’t return to the Sweet 16 or beyond, because I’m confident we’ll be back, but this combination of factors won’t be the same. Last week was so dizzying and defiant, so stunning.

All I want for Christmas is a trip to Houston.

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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