Scrappy and full of swagger, VCU heads to Houston in style
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Long after the on-court celebration had died down and the rest of the championship gear-clad VCU Rams had bounded into their locker room, Joey Rodriguez cut a solitary figure strolling down the expansive back corridor at the Alamodome.
"Can somebody get me a shirt and a hat? I lost mine. Damn," the diminutive point guard chirped to no one in particular when he finally got close to the dressing room door.
A VCU staffer came over, puzzled. "What happened?"
"Had to give them to my brother," Rodriguez copped, with an impish grin.
Coolness. Confidence. Swagger. The appearance of those traits was one of the lead storylines for Kansas here this weekend, but Rodriguez and the Rams showed them in abundance Sunday afternoon as VCU first staggered and then stunned the top-seeded Jayhawks 71-61 to advance to the Final Four.
There was nothing flukish about it, either. The better team won on this day, and they did it in style. Their style.
Leading into the game, there was a sense of blissful ignorance to the Rams' bravado. The scrappy underdogs from the Colonial Athletic Association talked openly about how they were tough enough and talented enough to play Kansas their own way, ignoring the perceived folly of trying to run with the deeper, loaded Big 12 team.
"Coach told us we could attack them in transition," Rodriguez insisted afterward. " ... He was absolutely right. They [were] the weakest in transition in the first half and we attacked them."
It took a handful of possessions -- and an easy 6-0 Kansas lead -- for VCU to find its footing, but the Rams' suspicions began to prove startlingly correct. Over the next 13:37, VCU unloaded a mind-blowing 39-15 run on the Jayhawks, who at first looked irked, then frustrated, then a bit panicked as the three-pointers kept raining and the deficit kept growing.
The Rams found secondary transition opportunities by the bushel, and the deluge of jump shots forced Kansas coach Bill Self to burn two timeouts and go deep into his bench early, groping around for some combination of guards that could find VCU's shooters. He never really got a handle.
"I think what hurt us more than anything in the first half is transition defense," Self said. "You look at the stat sheet, and at halftime, [we] had zero points in transition, and by our stats, they had 14."
Down by those 14 points at the break, the Jayhawks unleashed the run everyone suspected was coming. Their starting five, showing more urgency and fluidity, quickly cut the deficit to two. But then calls, made three seconds apart, against Markieff and Marcus Morris saddled them with three fouls apiece and changed the tenor of the contest. Markieff went to the bench, and Rams big man Jamie Skeen subsequently knocked down his fourth three-pointer (after making only 29 for the season prior to this), capping a 9-2 spurt that pushed the Rams' advantage back to nine. KU only got as close to five once more, and that final threat was subdued when first Rodriguez and then wing Bradford Burgess canned the last of VCU's 12 triples (on 25 attempts). A few minutes and some free throws later, and the marquee advertising strip in the dome was trying to squeeze "VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY" into the space allocated to trumpet the champions.
While VCU's perimeter marksmanship was searing, Kansas couldn't shoot from anywhere, making 22-of-62 overall, a horrible 15-for-28 from the line and a dreadful 2-for-21 from behind the arc. The deficit from three-point range -- the clear deciding factor in the game -- was an inarguable statement of victory for the Rams' mindset.
"If you watch closely, their players were tugging on their shorts for much of the game," VCU head coach Shaka Smart said afterward. "When you don't have your legs, it's hard to make outside shots. That's why we play the way we play."
The Rams looked plenty fresh when they poured through a tunneled walkway and into the concourse that leads back to the locker rooms. One vaulted happily over a 3-foot barrier dividing the walkway in two and a number of ecstatic Rams repeatedly yelled, "Houston, we have a problem!" They're a super-confident bunch that seems to take their lead from their cerebral, competitive coach.
Asked at the postgame podium whether his Rams now truly believed they could do the unthinkable and win the national title after finishing fourth in the CAA, Smart did what any Final Four-bound coach would do. Well, not really. Providing one more dose of the swagger that's carried his team through five NCAA tournament wins as an underdog, four by double digits, he quoted from the seminal scene of the 1989 classic "Major League."
"There's only one thing left to do," he said. "Win the whole blank[ing] thing."