RICHMOND, Va. — VCU has emerged from the First Four to become the darling of the NCAA tournament by sending a trio of major programs home — all in convincing fashion.
Not bad for a team many said had no business being invited in the first place.
The Rams have beaten Southern Cal, Georgetown and Purdue, which VCU ousted in a stunningly lopsided 94-76 runaway.
“It’s still a bit surreal,” Rams forward Bradford Burgess said Monday.
The reality is VCU has been dominant. Their three wins in the tournament are one more than anyone else and their average margin of victory has been more than 16 points.
Southern Cal was beaten 59-46 in one of the opening round games in Dayton, Ohio. Georgetown never really challenged in its 74-56 loss.
Next up is Florida State Friday night in San Antonio.
Not a bad run so far for a team that didn’t even watch the selection show together because second-year coach Shaka Smart was skeptical of their chances to get an at-large bid. He didn’t want the potential disappointment of being left out to become the defining moment of a 23-win season.
However, guard Brandon Rozzell says none of what has happened since has been a surprise.
“At the next practice, the enthusiasm, I think it’s just carried over,” he said. “After the USC win, it opened a lot of eyes to the nation, but we weren’t shocked at all. Georgetown, we weren’t shocked. We were just playing our brand and it’s come together at the right time.”
It helps that Rodriguez, the point guard, is playing the best of his career. It was never more evident than against the Boilermakers when he had 11 assists and no turnovers.
The Rams had 26 assists on only four turnovers as a team, game-changing stats in March.
Rodriguez said the bashing and second-guessing VCU endured from analysts who felt the Rams didn’t deserve a bid has helped motivate the team, but the way they have adjusted since losing in the CAA championship has helped more.
“I think it’s more about our attitude and how we’re approaching everything,” he said. “It’s more like carefree, going out there and just playing loose and attacking people.
“When we play on our heels, we’re not that good,” he said.
On their heels was how they started the CAA title game against Old Dominion, a tension fed in part by their almost universal expectation that they needed to win to make the tournament.
“Good luck in the NIT,” became a common greeting around campus, Burgess said.
When at-large bids were announced, rather than a team gathering, Smart had the five freshmen watch the show with him in his office, seemingly expecting the show to fuel their fire.
“If we didn’t get in, I wanted them to really feel it and feel how it felt,” Smart said, “because there’s going to be several more selection Sundays for them.”
Instead, they got to experience elation, and with a bonus dose of motivation.
“It could have gone either way because we didn’t know if we were going to be in or out,” Smart said. “Then they started bashing us, belittling us, belittling the season that we had.
“For our guys, they saw that and for a minute there, it was a little bit of a downer.”
And one the Rams have been quite pleased ever since to use to their advantage.
“Every game, we hear people still doubting us,” Burgess said. Sunday “people were saying that Purdue was going to beat us handily and look what happened. Every game, we’re still using it. Every time we hit the court, every practice, we’re still using it as motivation.”
In 2006, fellow CAA team George Mason rode a similar wave to the Final Four and Rams say 2011 could be their year.
“If we keep playing like we’ve been playing,” Burgess said, “anything’s possible.”