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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ROZZELL AN ‘X’ FACTOR FOR VCU

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CHICAGO – Who’d have thought Brandon Rozzell’s broken shooting hand, which cost him a chunk of his senior season, could be viewed as a good thing. Rozzell certainly didn’t feel that way at the time of the injury, but after scorching Georgetown with six 3-pointers and 26 points in a convincing, 74-56 NCAA Second Round victory Friday night, he might start at look at it differently.

“It’s funny, because the first person I talked to after the game is my father, and he mentioned the hand injury,” Rozzell, who missed eight games with the hand injury, said. “All he could talk about is how the injury helped me sit out and get my legs back into my shot. So, I guess he looked at it a different way.”

Rozzell certainly had his legs under him Friday when he bombed 6-of-10 from long distance to lead a 12-of-25 VCU shooting performance from beyond the arc.

It was a moment that also clarified how important Rozzell is to this team. When he’s on, the Rams are a dangerous foe. VCU is 4-1 this season when Rozzell scores at least 20 points.

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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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HOME WRECKERS

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For two-and-a-half years, VCU has clipped along at the Siegel Center largely unabated. The Rams have piled up 38 wins, including a school-record 18 last season. They upset 17th-ranked Oklahoma and fans stormed the floor. VCU also toppled arch-rival Old Dominion – twice. There was the nail-biter against James Madison that the Rams won in overtime and, there was the epic rout of Towson that featured 20 VCU 3-pointers.

It’s been a fun ride, but along the way, one team has eluded the Rams’ grasp, the Northeastern Huskies. Coached by Bill Coen, Northeastern has beaten VCU at the Siegel Center each of the last two seasons, the Rams’ only losses at the arena in 40 games.

A refresher course:

THE KARL HESS GAME
Northeastern 68, VCU 63 (Jan. 27, 2009)Box Score
In front of a weekday crowd of more than 6,800 and a national TV audience via ESPNU, Northeastern and VCU battled for sole possession of first place in the CAA. The game would also later feed into VCU fans’ superstition that the Rams’ gold uniforms were somehow cursed.

The Rams, led by senior Eric Maynor, were riding a seven-game win streak, but it was obvious in the early going that Maynor didn’t have his good legs. While Maynor struggled to get going, the Huskies took advantage, racing to a 30-13 lead in the game’s first 15 minutes.

But the Rams wouldn’t go quietly. Sophomore Brandon Rozzell scored eight points and Maynor buried a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left in the half during a 17-4 VCU run that cut the margin to 34-30 at intermission.

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ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF…

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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – On Wednesday afternoon, VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart was wondering who would fill Brandon Rozzell’s shoes. By the time 9:00 p.m. rolled around, he looked like a man who might’ve found an answer.

Freshman Rob Brandenberg scored a career-high 22 points Wednesday night, 19 of them in the second half, to lead the Rams to a convincing, 70-52 road victory over William & Mary.

“He’s pretty good,” Tribe Head Coach Tony Shaver said modestly after the game. “That a sign of a good basketball team.”

Rozzell, VCU’s sixth man and third-leading scorer, broke his shooting hand during Tuesday’s practice when he collided with a teammate. Smart said he told his players before Wednesday’s game that they’d have to step up to fill the void. Apparently, Brandenberg heard the message loud and clear.

Displaying impressive athleticism and a repertoire of long-range shots, drives and pull-up jumpers, Brandenberg helped the Rams stave off comeback-minded William & Mary (4-12, 0-5 CAA). READ MORE…

ROZZELL HAS BROKEN HAND, OUT 2-4 WEEKS

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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – VCU senior shooting guard Brandon  Rozzell will miss 2-4 weeks after breaking his right (shooting) hand during practice Tuesday. The injury occurred when Rozzell’s hand collided with freshman Reco McCarter’s knee.

Rozzell, the Rams’ third-leading scorer, is averaging 13.3 points and leads the team with 44 3-pointers. He is scheduled to have surgery to place two pins in the hand on Thursday.

PEDAL TO THE METAL

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WILMINGTON, N.C. – Shaka Smart had a feeling about Brandon Rozzell before this one. You see, the book on Rozzell is, great player at home, struggles on the road. But Smart felt like Saturday’s game at UNC Wilmington’s Trask Coliseum was going to be different.

“About 36 hours ago I started talking to him about Saint Louis. As you know, in Saint Louis last year he had 27 points. I told him, ‘Brandon, I’ve got a feeling this is going to be like Saint Louis. Bring a Saint Louis-like energy and a Saint Louis-like focus.’”

Rozzell struggled mightily on the road last season as well, but summoned a career-best 27-point assault in VCU’s 71-65 triumph at Saint Louis’ Chaifetz Arena in the championship of the College Basketball Invitational.

Saturday, Smart couldn’t have been more right, as Rozzell pumped in 22 points, including six 3-pointers, to ignite an 82-64 VCU rout of upstart UNC Wilmington in potentially the Rams’ most complete performance of the season. READ MORE…

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