Saturday March 19th, 2011

CHICAGO -- VCU's NCAA tourney bid was such an uncertainty that coach Shaka Smart chose not to stage a selection show viewing party for his team. ("I didn't want them to be too crushed" going into a possible NIT game, he said.) Forward Jamie Skeen was eating dinner at a Great Wrap when he heard the news. Others were in their dorm rooms. Several athletic department staffers were at the school's baseball game.

The next day, however, the Rams were on a plane to Dayton. A night later they beat USC in the First Four. Later that same night, at 2:30 a.m., they landed in Chicago. By Friday night, they'd gone from one of the First Four to the Last 32.

In hammering sixth seed Georgetown, 74-56, the Rams put their Selection Sunday backlash squarely in the rearview mirror, though not before one last motivational tactic from Smart. At a pregame meal, the skinny 33-year-old with the bald head and the catchy name showed his team a video clip of ESPN's Joe Lunardi -- who did not have VCU in his bracket -- saying the Rams "couldn't guard him."

Lunardi must have one heck of a jumper, because Friday night, the Rams held their second straight BCS-conference opponent under 40 percent shooting. Most of the night, the Hoyas needed a GPS device to find the net, shooting a ghastly 1-of-12 from three-point range in the first half and 5-of-26 (19.2 percent) for the game.

VCU, on the other hand, came out on fire -- no one more so than Brandon Rozzell. The senior came off the bench to drain 6-of-10 three-pointers and score a season-high 26 points, laughing and smiling most of the way.

"He's talking out there when he's making shots," said point guard Joey Rodriguez. " ... On the defensive end, he's pointing out assignments and stuff. And when he's done with that, he's telling people he's open."

Perhaps the reason for Rozzell's hot hand was that he felt at home. The Richmond, Va., school's lone hometown player scored 15 of his 26 points in the second half, on the side of the court facing VCU's band and adjacent to Sections 112 and 113 of the United Center. Only a handful of Rams faithful were able to make it to Dayton on 48 hours' notice for the USC game on Tuesday. On Friday, however, gold-and-black clad fans filled the arena with chants of "V-C-U, V-C-U."

About 10 minutes after the game had ended and most of the crowd had left, a lone member of the band wearing a helmet with Rams horns started up another chant: "C-A-A. C-A-A." Their salute to the Colonial Athletic Association came on the heels of not just VCU's win but George Mason's over Villanova earlier in the day, giving the league a pair of wins over the highly esteemed Big East.

"All of us look up to the Big East in a way. They're always on TV, and they play in the biggest arenas," said Rozzell. "Watching George Mason win today was a big motivation for us. We were rooting for those guys, and seeing them win helped us pull through today."

Seeing both of them win should, theoretically, serve as yet another annual reminder that yes, teams from the top mid-major conferences really can play. You wouldn't think it necessary after, oh, George Mason reached the Final Four, Butler reached last year's national title game, and ... heck, VCU beat Duke in the Round of 64 not long ago (2007). Yet last Sunday night, the bracket pundits worked themselves into a tizzy yet again about the indignity of the CAA's runner-up getting into the field over a 9-7 ACC team (Virginia Tech) or an 8-8 Big 12 team (Colorado).

The Hoyas entered the postseason on a slide themselves, and apparently they weren't over it. Ranked ninth in the country and standing 10-5 in the Big East a month ago, they'd lost four straight going into Friday's game. Guard Chris Wright, who broke his hand Feb. 24, made his much-anticipated return to the lineup against the Rams, but it wound up being a nightmarish final for the senior. He shot 3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-6 from beyond the arc, picked up a technical for arguing a call with team was down 20 and left the game briefly after injuring his eye.

His fellow senior starter, Austin Freeman, fared no better, going 3-of-14 and 0-of-7 on three-pointers. It marked their second straight year suffering a tourney-opening blowout at the hands of a double-digit seed. (Last year No. 14 seed Ohio trounced the third-seeded Hoyas 97-83). Arriving a year after Georgetown reached the Final Four, their class left without ever making it out of the NCAA's first weekend.

"A lot will be said about what this group did or didn't do in their four years in the postseason, but they've given a lot to the school." said coach John Thompson III. "As the head of the program, you go through introspection and we'll take time, and I'll do that. ... We'll evaluate."

Meanwhile, for VCU, Rodriguez and Rozzell's class hasn't made it out of the first weekend yet, either -- though it sure feels like it after already beating USC and Georgetown. Up next, they get an even higher seed, Purdue, which demolished St. Peter's on Friday and which, like VCU, rides a core of senior starters. Two of them, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, are All-America candidates.

For the third time in six nights, VCU will be discounted.

"I think that stuff's kind of fading now," said Smart. "We've proven over the last two games that we belong here, we more than belong here. Sunday's going to be more about us and Purdue, and who's the better team."

He eagerly awaits the first clip of someone on television saying it's Purdue.

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