SAN ANTONIO -- In the spring of 2009, VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez, having just finished his sophomore season, was at a career crossroads. The Florida native, a bit homesick after spending two years in Richmond, Va., after not getting the right offers from his home state's Division I schools, now was losing his head coach, Anthony Grant, who was taking the job at Alabama.
Following some consideration, Rodriguez announced his intention to transfer back home to Division II power Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., close to his family in Orlando. He packed up and headed south, where he spent three weeks "feeling like I was in high school again."
One problem: None of his teammates actually believed Rodriguez, who labels himself as indecisive in many facets of his off-court life, was gone for good.
"I just know he just wanted to lay on the beach and enjoy the sun and see his family and get out of the summer class we were in," said fellow senior Brandon Rozzell.
"He was trippin'. Brandon and I were saying he just missed the sun in Florida," added senior Ed Nixon, whose team lost to Rodriguez's in the 2007 Florida state championship game and who was swayed to come to VCU by him. "He's too good of a player to go to D-II. ... We just talked to him about that. He made the best decision of his life coming back."
After three weeks away from the program, during which Rozzell said he spoke with Rodriguez every day, Rodriguez had a couple of phone discussions with new head coach Shaka Smart.
"First thing [Smart] said was if you come back, you have to be all in, two feet in the circle. That's the thing that sticks with me the most," Rodriguez recalled. "I told him right away that I was in fully, that I wanted to be back with the guys. He told me just call him back in the morning, just to make sure. I think I called him at like eight in the morning and told him, 'Coach, I'm for real. I want to be back.' "
At the same time, VCU had a completely different transfer situation blossoming. Six-foot-nine forward Jamie Skeen had spent his first two seasons at Wake Forest before a violation of the school's academic policy rendered him ineligible for the fall semester in 2008. Instead of applying for reinstatement that December, Skeen headed to VCU, where he spent the spring semester practicing with the team before Grant left and Rodriguez made his short-lived escape.
One transfer averted. One transfer secured. The seeds of one Final Four run were planted.
On the surface, Rodriguez and Skeen couldn't be much different. Despite his official listing of 5-10, Rodriguez is at least a foot shorter than Skeen. Rodriguez is a four-year starter. Skeen had to bide his time behind lanky big man Larry Sanders before emerging this season. While Rodriguez lapped up NCAA news conference coverage with a series of smiles and self-deprecating quips, Skeen was mostly left alone and provided quiet anecdotes about his move from Winston-Salem to those who asked.
"Of course, when you transfer and you go to from a high-Division I school like Wake Forest to a mid-major like VCU, everyone's going to go, 'What are you thinking? That was a stupid move on your part,' " Skeen said, "but I saw the future [at VCU]." Skeen mentioned that seeing talents come through the program like Sanders (now with the Milwaukee Bucks) and former star guard Eric Maynor (Oklahoma City Thunder) made him believe that if he made impact at VCU, he would be noticed.
While the Rams are more than just a point guard and a big man -- Bradford Burgess, notably, made six threes in the Sweet 16 nail-biter with Florida State -- there's no denying how many big plays the two have been involved in during this stretch run.
It was Rodriguez who was fouled and made two free throws with 0.8 seconds left to beat Wichita State in BracketBusters, a road win that helped bolster the Rams' at-large credentials. That win may not have mattered had Skeen not converted a spinning layup at the buzzer to beat Drexel in the CAA tournament quarterfinal. That escape set the table for a thumping of George Mason and the close loss in the final to Old Dominion that provided the Rams just enough juice to make it into the NCAAs.
At the regional, it was Rodriguez who held the ball for just short of five seconds before inbounding to the cutting Burgess for the layup that beat Florida State in overtime. Against Kansas, it was Skeen who made a trio of first-half threes, part of a nine-triple barrage that stunned the Jayhawks. Then when KU drew within two in the second half, Skeen (who finished with 26 points and 10 boards) made two free throws and then yet another three as part of a 9-2 Rams response. One final Jayhawk push was rebuffed by a Rodriguez three-ball and then an assist to Bradford for one more, with both plays coming after Rodriguez airballed a three and then had a layup swatted out of bounds.
"I'm short, I get my shot blocked all the time. That doesn't bother me, really," Rodriguez said of the sequence. "Coach has a lot of belief in me as a leader, he gave me the ball. And Brandon told me, 'Don't worry, shoot the next shot.' That's what I did."
After VCU beat Florida State, Rodriguez was at the forefront of the immediate on-court celebration, popping his jersey and wildly pumping a fist toward the VCU fans. After the Rams felled Kansas to make the Final Four, CBS cameras caught Skeen flashing one happy smile. It may not have lasted even a second, but it spoke volumes about where he's been and where the Rams are headed.
"I got a picture sent to me where you can't walk anywhere on Broad Street right now," Rodriguez said of the main drag by VCU's campus after the Rams had clinched their spot in the Final Four. "It's exciting. I'm sure everybody is going to be out there waiting for us and I can't wait to get out of here."
This time, all of his teammates were OK with that sentiment.