Beyond the Boxscore
A smarter Cinderella: An inbounds play, Big Shot Brad & a pep band gone wildpower VCU
SAN ANTONIO — The First Four team looks dead, done and discouraged. It had its chance and lost once the game went into overtime, right? It had its chance up one with two free throws to extend the advantage its three in OT and blew it, right?
What chance could VCU have now?
"We're going to win this game," Shaka Smart keeps repeating in the huddle, catching the eye of every player he can. "We're going to win this game."
"That's coach," Rams point guard Joey Rodriguez says later. "He's always telling us, 'We've got this.' "
VCU's got this — a berth in the Elite Eight — because its 33-year-old coach who only looks slightly older than Butler's Harry-Potter-man Brad Stevens conjured up not one, but two precise inbounds plays with the March magic seemingly falling apart all around him. Florida State leads 71-70 with 7.9 seconds left. VCU, the 11th seed out of the First Four, gets to inbounds the ball from under the FSU basket. To probably throw up a desperation shot and call it a month.
Only that's not what happens. Rodriguez — the player who missed those two free throws, the ones that sent his dad pacing around the entire Alamodome — whips a perfect pass to a cutting Bradford Burgess right at the basket. Layup.
VCU 72, ACC 71.
A few frantic moments later — and a Florida State shot and miss that came after the buzzer — and suddenly, the Alamodome's gone berserk. Rodriguez leads a chest-thumping run to center court to start one of the longest Elite Eight celebrations you're ever going to see. Heck, some Final Four berths have been less celebrated. It's lucky that the court still has nets for Sunday's game.
And why not?
No team's ever had to win four games to get to the Elite Eight before. From First Four to Final Four?
"To be honest, our goal was the Sweet 16," Rodriguez says. "But why stop now."
Because Kansas — probably the most fearsome No. 1 seed left in the field after Kentucky stunned Ohio State in the other half of this late Friday night — is next for one. But it's almost fitting that when VCU finally gets the stage to itself it will be against an ultimate giant. Even though the Rams (27-11) have played more games in this NCAA Tournament than any other team, America's been slow to embrace them in any type of Butler or George Mason way.
That's because the Rams hadn't had anything close to a signature shining moment. They ground down USC by 13 in one of the First Four games that nobody could get into. They waxed Georgetown and Purdue by 18 each. There was no real reason to pay attention to VCU. It wasn't in any of the compelling games.
Until now. Until Kentucky-Ohio State ended and VCU was the only show on TV. Until the rethought inbounds pass.
"This is the first time we've really got a taste of the madness, so hopefully we're due a little more," Rodriguez says. "Before tonight, we've been busting people."
Inbounds to heaven
Smart was sure he'd called a great inbounds play, VCU's best inbounds play. Then, he noticed a Florida State assistant coach mouthing to the Seminoles which play the Rams would run after FSU followed a Rams' timeout with one of its own. VCU's top inbounds play had been scouted out dead.
So Smart changed it up and called an inbounds play his team doesn't rely on quite so heavily.
"We had Play 12 called and coach switched it to Play 11," Rodriguez says.
Smart told his 5-foot-10 point guard — a curious choice for an inbounds passer considering FSU was going to pressure the passer with a tall player — to do a few pass fakes and look for Big Shot Brad on the third screen.
That's what the Rams call Burgess — Big Shot Brad. He was about to make the biggest shot in VCU history.
"I got open and just made it," Burgess says.
Suddenly, all those endless practices made sense.
"Coach makes us practice inbounds plays every single practice," Rodriguez says. "We're usually like, 'Inbounds plays again.' I'm not going to doubt anything the coaches say ever again. That man's a genius."
Getting there with a band
Smart is anything but conventional. He takes his team to the Alamo, encourages them to walk around the city, to get out of the hotel, to be as relaxed as possible — and then try to create complete chaos on the court.
VCU's frantic pressure clearly unnerved the Seminoles in spurts. Florida State didn't seem aware of where the traps would come from and then they were there. Or just when the Noles were expecting constant pressure, the Rams dropped back into a more traditional half-court defensive set.
It's all part of Smart's carefully-constructed crazy havoc.
VCU scores in spurts and then takes a flurry of rushed shots. If senior guard Brandon Rozzell hits two straight 3-pointers, you can be sure that he's going to force up a heat-check third triple under pressure. But there is plenty of old fashioned ball movement at the heart of Smart's offense.
A few of the open triples (and VCU hit 12 of them) came on the fourth pass Friday night. A Ram always seems to be cutting to the rim to receive the pass for a layup or cutting to a corner or a wing to get a pass for a 3-point look. There's a little Princeton offense mixed in with all that frantic pressure.
With most of America focused on the Ohio State-Kentucky thriller in Newark, everyone missed a heck of a show in its own right. The Rams Rumble.
Even the VCU pep band refuses to play by the rules. Alamodome security came over again and again to warn the rambunctious group about this violation or that (trying to play while a video was on the scoreboard, flinging drum sticks into the air). The Ram band would sit there and politely smile at each rebuke. Then wait a few minutes and do it all over again.
"We feed off them every single game," Smart says, becoming perhaps the first Elite Eight coach in history to credit the band.
There are no rules for Cinderella.
From the First Four to the Final Four?