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When the VCU men’s basketball team was overlooked for the 2010 National Invitational Tournament’s 32-team field on Selection Sunday, it left a sour taste in their mouths.
This time, when the 16-team bracket was being assembled for the NIT Season Tip-Off, the Rams were not an afterthought.
After defeating reigning Big South Champion Winthrop on Tuesday night, VCU took Havoc 2.0 – the team’s self-named style of play – to another level the following night, routing ACC’s Wake Forest and scheduling a date with 23rd ranked Tennessee Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
The privilege to compete at what is known as the “Mecca of basketball” is any college basketball player’s dream and for the Rams, an opportunity such as this has a significance of all sorts.
“It’s my dream for sure,” senior point guard Joey Rodriguez said. “It’s a great opportunity on a national stage in front of the world, and we couldn’t ask for more at the beginning of the year so it’s just so exciting.”
While playing at the Garden may be a dream come true for some, the forthcoming experience has a different impact on Richmond native Brandon Rozzell.
“It’s a great feeling for me coming from Richmond and not being in New York more than one time and not seeing Madison Square Garden ever but on TV,” Rozzell said. “Getting to step into that building and play basketball as a VCU Ram is an honor for me, especially being from Richmond.”
The senior guard has been a large part of a VCU squad that places a large emphasis on shots from behind the three-point line. Through the first three games of the season, the Rams have shrewdly peppered the three-point shot onto opposing teams, taking 85 shots from beyond the arc, second most in the nation behind Virginia Military Institute.
“We want to go get a good shot every time down, and we’ve got a lot of guys that are very good three-point shooters so if the other team is going to leave those guys open, then we are going to shoot the ball,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “However, there are stretches in the game sometimes where it makes since to get the ball inside; but for the most part if Brandon (Rozzell) is open, or Joey (Rodriguez) is open, or any other of our good three-point shooters, I want them to shoot it.”
VCU has turned the three-point shot into its consistent “bread and butter,” shooting 38.8 percent with help from a constant feeding source in Rodriguez. Coming off a pre-season ankle injury that kept him from participating in the Rams’ exhibition against Virginia Union, Rodriguez is currently averaging 10.3 assists per game, which ranks second in the nation. Although Rodriguez admits that he is still not fully 100 percent, his efforts so far have been beyond par for VCU, leading the Rams in scoring with 18.3 points per game along with a 17 assist endeavor against UNC Greensboro that set a program record.
VCU’s success stretches further than the offensive side of the floor, however; the Rams’ defense is finally beginning to find its form following the start of the NIT Tip-Off. In Wednesday night’s matchup against Wake Forest, the VCU defense unleashed havoc to full use, forcing 23 turnovers, including 11 steals that sent the Demon Deacon offense into a state of turmoil.
“We definitely focused this year on our half-court defense and full-court defense, and we were pretty good in the press forcing turnovers,” junior Bradford Burgess said. “It seemed like they didn’t even get the ball past half-court for a good stretch of time; that’s been the focus this year, and hopefully we can continue to improve.”
The win over Wake Forest came as a confidence boost for an already especially confident VCU Rams basketball team that has leaned on its four returning seniors from last year.
“It lifts us up a lot, playing an ACC team at their place and winning a game like that,” Rodriguez said. “We always have confidence, but it helps out a little bit.”
VCU will take its elevated confidence to New York City, competing with three other top tier schools such as #7 Villanova, #23 Tennessee and UCLA. Standing in the way of the Rams and a shot at the NIT Tip-Off Championship is a match against a highly-touted Tennessee Volunteer team coming off close wins over Belmont and Missouri State.
While competing with a few of the nation’s top schools may stand as a good challenge for VCU to assess themselves, Smart believes his team prepares an even challenge.
“Every team is different; I don’t think the rankings makes much of a difference in terms of how you match up against them,” Smart said. “Any team that makes is to the semifinals of the NIT is a high-level team.”
Wednesday’s semifinal winners of the Tennnessee-VCU, Villanova-UCLA match-ups will face each other in the championship Friday, leaving the two runner-ups to face each other in a consolation game.
Having started the year with a three-game win-streak, VCU heads into Madison Square Garden with its confidence in full effect, having achieved a great deal of success so far in the early stages of the season.
“The feeling is amazing that you achieved a goal that you set at the beginning of the season; it’s a good feeling going into that tournament,” Rozzell said. “We wanted to get to Madison Square Garden, and we did it by winning two games in a row, and now we’re headed to New York City.”