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.
“It’s been crazy,” said senior Joey Rodriguez said. “I called my dad yesterday and told him, you don’t know how crazy it is, and he requested that I turn off my phone for a little bit. So I went to go hang out at my girlfriend’s house and I turned off my phone and just relaxed. But it’s been great.”
Right now, the Rams are the toast of Richmond and the NCAA Tournament. Head Coach Shaka Smart has appeared on ESPN’s First Take, as well as Mike and Mike in the Morning and numerous other programs. Rodriguez appeared on the Scott Van Pelt Show on ESPN Radio on Monday. There have been rumors about Kenny Mayne on campus on Wednesday.
While the response to VCU’s string of NCAA wins has been a bit overwhelming, it’s also a good problem to have, according to Smart.
“That’s good. I don’t know who said it, but any publicity is good publicity,” Smart said. “It’s great for our program, it’s great for Virginia Commonwealth University, but what you don’t want is for that to take away from your focus on what you have to do to win.”
To that end, VCU held a media luncheon with Smart and selected players on Tuesday to allow the Rams to fulfill the media’s appetite, yet clear the slate to prepare for Florida State. VCU essentially cut off all media requests Tuesday afternoon, and that’s fine by some Rams, who are already chomping at the bit to get to the Alamodome.
“I’m ready to get out of here, to tell you the truth,” Rodriguez, who had 12 points and 11 assists in the Rams’ win over Purdue, said. “I think it’s best that the more quickly we leave Richmond, the better.”
VCU was skewered by certain ESPN analysts for its inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field. Their words, while harsh, served to galvanize the Rams throughout the week. The coaching staff made those criticisms part of their game plan, even going as far to edit videos, critical of VCU, to hammer home the point.
The strategy worked. The Rams are clearly playing some of, if not their best ball of the season. But now, after going from “step-child to darling”, as Smart said Tuesday, how will the Rams plan to stay sharp as they prepare for Florida State, one of the best defensive teams in the country?
“Everybody knows we played last week with a big chip on our shoulder,” Smart said. “We used the comments made by some of the media as an unbelievable fuel, a motivating fuel for us and now it’s important that we make sure that we still have that motivation. A lot of people are going to be saying good things about us, but we’re not satisfied with the Sweet 16. We want more, and we know what we have to do going into Friday’s game.”
“I’m pretty sure coach is going to find us something somewhere to use as motivation, somebody talking down about our program,” commented freshman Rob Brandenberg. “We’re playing great as a team, our chemistry’s great, we’re playing together and I don’t think we need to buy into all the hype or all the people in the media talking down or talking great about us.”
But it’s hard not to feel at least a little good about yourself when people are willing to stop traffic to take a picture with you, as one fan did was Tuesday as Rodriguez strolled down Broad Street.
“The car was just sitting there with the door open, just stopped, to take a picture. I was like, are you kidding me right now?” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “It was pretty cool.”
Yup, these are different days at VCU.