NCAA BK

Confident Rams take cue from coach

Image: Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart (© Scott K. Brown/AP via Virginia Commonwealth)
VCU players celebrate with coach Shaka Smart after beating FSU.
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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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SAN ANTONIO

As Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart left for the locker room before his 11th-seeded team’s NCAA tournament game Friday night against No. 10 seed Florida State, he tried to calm Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager.

“Don’t be nervous,” Smart recalled telling Yeager. “We’re going to win.”

As arrogant as it seemed, Smart was simply adhering to his team’s philosophy of ACL — Aggressive, Confident and Loose.

“He’s going to act that way,” VCU assistant coach Mike Rhoades said, “because that’s how he wants his team to play.”

And with VCU’s 72-71 overtime victory against Florida State in a Southwest Regional semifinal on guard Bradford Burgess’ game-winning layup off an inbounds pass, doubters of Smart and his team have nothing left to say. After all, the improbable Rams are in the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

“We’re not supposed to be here supposedly,” said guard Joey Rodriguez, who threw the inbounds pass to Burgess. “So we’re just having a good time.”

Of course. How could we forget those who said VCU didn’t deserve its at-large bid to the NCAA tournament? They were the same pundits who said the Rams wouldn’t win their play-in game against 11th-seeded USC.

Just like they said VCU couldn’t beat sixth-seeded Georgetown and third-seeded Purdue. And even after upsetting both, it wouldn’t be able to defeat stingy Florida State, right?

At least that was according to television commentators such as Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Just like for previous opponents this NCAA tournament, VCU watched a video of those comments before playing Florida State.

“We proved them wrong yet again,” said Burgess, who had a game-high 26 points.

And that’s what VCU’s key players in Friday night’s victory have been doing their entire careers.

Jamie Skeen, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder this season, who had 11 points and a team-high eight rebounds, is a transfer from Wake Forest. He had academic issues and wanted a fresh start at VCU.

Rodriguez at one point decided to leave the Rams and transfer to an NCAA Division II school after Smart’s predecessor, Anthony Grant, left for Alabama. He ended up changing his mind and calling newly hired Smart to ask if he could stay.

Burgess was a do-it-all player in high school, but was overshadowed by teammate Ed Davis, the Toronto Raptors rookie forward. Guard Brandon Rozzell, who had 16 points, grew up a mile away from VCU’s campus in Richmond, Va., and has always believed he can make every one of his shots, even when others didn’t.

“It’s amazing what a team can accomplish when nobody cares about who gets the credit,” Smart said. “Our guys have played with that in mind over these last couple of weeks.”

And now VCU is actually bothered when asked about the naysayers who said it didn’t deserve to make the NCAA tournament.

“As for what we think of people that doubted us early on,” Smart said, “nothing.

CHEERS TO YOU

They're part of the magic every season. Enjoy our photo-gallery tribute to college basketball cheerleaders.

Inevitably, there will be those who say VCU can’t win Sunday when it plays top-seeded Kansas for a trip to the Final Four. Don’t rule out the Rams, but if you do make sure they know about it.

“It’s a little bit insulting,” Burgess said. “But we still use it for motivation.”

Amidst the celebration of beating Florida State, a VCU fan waved a sign that read, “Shaka The World.” The rest of college basketball might be shocked, but not Smart and his team.

They’ve got too much confidence and motivation to know any better.

Tagged: Virginia Commonwealth, Bradford Burgess

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