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.
VCU pounded the ball inside with deadly efficiency, scoring 48 points in the paint. In Friday’s victory over Georgetown, the Rams scored just six baskets inside the 3-point line. On Sunday, 29 buckets came from inside the arc. The Rams attacked Purdue All-American forward JaJuan Johnson relentlessly, a strategy that paid off in spades. In addition to senior forward Jamie Skeen, who had 13 points, the Rams also received 18 points in 19 minutes from freshmen post players D.J. Haley and Juvonte Reddic.
“It’s just an aggressive style, an attacking style and also, we knew that Johnson wanted to play pretty much the whole game,” said VCU Coach Shaka Smart. “I think he’s fouled 50-something (51) times this year. He doesn’t have a lot of fouls, so we wanted to go at him inside and their other bigs and see whether he was going to stand up to us and foul us or let us shoot layups.”
At the center of VCU’s well-oiled offensive machine was senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, whose masterful, 12-point, 11-assist, zero-turnover performance would’ve left Maynor wide-eyed. Given the level of opponent and the stage, Rodriguez’s effort belongs among the best in school history.
In this tournament, Rodriguez has been magnificent running the VCU offense. In three games, he’s handed out 23 assists against just three turnovers, a jaw-dropping assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 7-to-1.
“I was interviewed a couple of days ago and they asked about Joey and I said that he’s one of the best point guards in the country, in my opinion,” said Nixon, who scored 11 points and handed out six assists. “He came out and played a hell of a game.”
Rodriguez’s flawless direction of VCU’s attack, combined with a deep stable of scorers, essentially ran Purdue out of the United Center. VCU had six players score in double figures and the Rams’ bench outscored Purdue’s 29-5.
The Rams trailed, 18-13, after a Johnson jumper with 12:38 left in the first half, but embarked on a 13-0 run moments later to take a 36-24 lead that proved insurmountable.
“We attacked them,” Rodriguez said. “Coach told us before the game to attack them and play loose and that’s what we did. You don’t want to play on your heels and tonight we didn’t play on our heels at all. We attacked them and made plays and we’ve got guys who can make shots and that’s what happened.”
But there’s more wow factor to be had. There’s more than just history, stunning offensive outbursts and delightful point guard play. Perhaps the hardest fact to believe, or just the most impressive, is that VCU hammered three teams from the Pac-10, Big East and Big Ten, respectively, by an average of 16 points per game over a five-day span.
“On a neutral floor, VCU can beat any team in the country,” said Purdue Head Coach Matt Painter.
That’s a bold statement about a team that wasn’t even supposed to be here. The Rams lost five of their final eight games, including heartbreakers at Drexel and to James Madison. Both Old Dominion and George Mason won in convincing fashion of VCU’s home floor during that stretch as well.
VCU’s inclusion in the field drew the ire of a handful of ESPN pundits. Those comments did little to distract the Rams. Instead, they served as a rallying cry and narrowed VCU’s focus. From the time the Rams touched down in Dayton for their “First Four” game with USC, until the moment they stepped back onto their team charter flight in Chicago, VCU looked like one of the best teams in the country, bar none.
“We don’t want to end on a loss, especially not letting analysts be right,” said Skeen. “They’ve all been rooting against us and telling us, saying that we’re going to lose to USC, we were going to lose to Georgetown and Purdue, so we just don’t want them to be right.
“They said we wasn’t supposed to be here. Look at us.”
But the Rams’ stellar play isn’t just an act of defiance. Their NCAA Tournament dreams once seemed dashed, that is, until the Rams’ saw VCU appear in that bracket on Selection Sunday.
“This is new life,” Nixon said. “It’s like, you appreciate every moment, every possession. So, we’re just living it up, man.”
“I think we lost focus sometimes on the road and against certain opponents we weren’t as focused as we should’ve been,” said Bradford Burgess, who led VCU Sunday with 23 points. “But I think this time around, with our second chance we didn’t want to end the way we did. We’ve had an extreme amount of focus and determination to win game and play our style of play.”
With Sunday’s win, VCU became THE story of this year’s NCAA Tournament. But these March darlings aren’t ready for the ride to end. There’s a date with another Cinderella, 10th-seeded Florida State, waiting in San Antonio Friday evening.
“It feels amazing. I’m excited that we’re here, but I’m not satisfied, because we’ve got some more winning to do,” Skeen said. “I’m trying to make more history. I’m trying to go deeper. I’m not satisfied.”
While there may be more March madness in store for the Rams, the most memorable week in VCU Basketball history ended the way it began, with a wow.