Rozzell embraces spotlight
HOUSTON – He’s the most popular guy on the team that has become the darlings of the NCAA tournament.
Virginia Commonwealth senior guard Brandon Rozzell is so well liked, there’s talk that, some day, he could become the mayor of Richmond, Va., home to the school’s campus.
Having a basketball hero as a city’s chief executive wouldn’t be unprecedented. Detroit has former NBA great Dave Bing as its boss. Sacramento has ex-pro standout Kevin Johnson in the big chair.
Stranger things have happened. Things like 11th-seeded VCU storming into the Final Four.
“I haven’t met mayor [Dwight C. Jones] yet,” a beaming Rozzell said Friday. “I think he’s kind of ducking me because he knows I’m coming for that job.”
There might not be a more vital player on the court Saturday when the Rams (28-11) meet eighth-seeded Butler (27-9) at Reliant Stadium with a berth in the national championship game on the line.
There definitely won’t be anyone more relaxed or having any more fun. Rozzell, a 3-point specialist, was effervescent as he met with reporters in the VCU locker room, scratching his scraggly beard and basking in the attention that had eluded him and his program until their stunning March run into the national consciousness.
“I love the big stage and playing against the best guys,” Rozzell said. “It seems like my shots are falling better against some of the bigger schools.”
Coming off the bench, his marksmanship has been one of the driving factors for the Rams as they’ve taken down USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas en route to their date with destiny in Texas.
Rozzell is averaging 14 points and 3.6 3-pointers in tournament play. He’s shooting 48.6 percent from beyond the arc, a great equalizer against a defense, such as Butler’s, with the ability to limit things down low. He was at his best against the Hoyas, nailing a career-high six treys and striking for 26 points in a 74-56 blowout.
Butler will present VCU with a different challenge.
“They have a great defensive team,” Rozzell said. “They do all the extra things that coaches ask. They hustle, they take charges. We’re just going to play our style, get up and down and do whatever it takes to make Butler feel uncomfortable.”
The Richmond native hasn’t met a shot he doesn’t like or won’t take, and he makes no apologies for his free-wheeling ways.
“I’ve never seen a bad shot unless it was inside the three-point line,” he said, laughing. “I don’t try to rush things. I don’t try to force shots. I just try to be patient and poised and let the game come to me.
“It’s all about playing loose and aggressive. Our confidence is sky high. I’m not looking over at coach and wondering if it’s a bad shot. I’m just out there playing. Kind of like open gym.”
Coach Shaka Smart calls Rozzell and senior guard Ed Nixon the “Energy Brothers,” reserves who have sparked the Rams offensively and defensively respectively.
Much like Vinnie Johnson used to do for the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys of the 1980s, Rozzell is counted on to provide points in an instant.
“Brandon is an unbelievable shooter,” Smart said. “He’s got great confidence in every shot he takes. In his mind, every shot is a good shot. Sometimes the assistant coaches look at me and say, ‘Don’t let him shoot that.’
“Brandon is a guy that you’ve got to give breathing room. We have and its paid dividends.”
Nixon said a few years back when Rozzell would jack up a shot, his teammates would wonder what he was thinking.
More often than not of late, they watch in wonder at what he’s been sinking.
“When I first got here, I used to think, ‘What the …,” Nixon said. “Now I’m used to it. He’s the man.”
The VCU attack certainly will give Butler plenty to think about. Senior forward Jamie Skeen is a standout who can do damage inside and out. Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez can penetrate and dish, while also having the ability to make jumpers.
Rozzell will be waiting for his opportunities on the perimeter, prepared to pull the trigger any time he sees an opening.
“I’m always fearless,” he said. “I’ve always been a confident player, but it also comes from my teammates and coaching staff. They let me loose.
“If I’m able to make a shot, they tell me to shoot the next one. Nothing negative is ever said. I’m always looking to get going and my teammates are always telling me to keep shooting.”
Should he have another big day from deep and be able to deliver the Rams to the brink of a title Saturday, his approval rating will soar even higher, his support base will broaden.
A win on Monday night and he can probably start drafting his inaugural address.