Rodriguez keeps Rams running

SAN ANTONIO – During the most anticipated hour of the college basketball season, Ed Nixon watched the Cartoon Network, Brandon Rozzell immersed himself in a homework assignment and some other teammates took naps.

Joey Rodriguez considered leaving VCU after Anthony Grant left to take over at Alabama.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Then there was Joey Rodriguez.

As the intro music for the NCAA Tournament Selection Show began March 13, the senior guard at Virginia Commonwealth sat alone in front of the TV at his off-campus apartment, the only player convinced the Rams had what no one seemed willing to give them: a chance.

“Once our named got called,” Rodriguez said, “I went crazy.”

Rodriguez pounded on doors to alert his teammates that they’d been included in the 68-team field. Most of them hadn’t watched the show because they still remembered the pain of being snubbed on Selection Sunday two years earlier. Rodriguez called his family in Florida, then ran into his apartment’s courtyard.

“The whole complex was going nuts,” Rodriguez said.

Gratifying as it was to take part in the celebration, Rodriguez wasn’t surprised VCU - which had lost five of its final eight games - had received a berth.

Nor is he shocked now as the school sits one win away from a spot in the Final Four following victories over USC, Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State. The 11th-seeded Rams take on top-seeded Kansas on Sunday at the Alamodome.

“One thing about me,” Rodriguez said, “is that I’ve always made people believe they can do things that most people think they can’t do.”

That, more than anything, explains VCU’s unlikely postseason run. As much praise as coach Shaka Smart deserves, even he realizes the Rams owe most of their NCAA tournament success to Rodriguez, a 5-foot-10 point guard whose contribution is measured by more than just stats.

“There were a ton of people that didn’t feel like he could run this team,” said Smart, 33. “They didn’t feel like he could be a good point guard. He [dedicated] these last few years to really proving people wrong.”

In some ways, it’s easy to see why people may have doubted Rodriguez. Within weeks of Smart’s hiring two years ago, Rodriguez announced his plans to transfer home to Division II Rollins, in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park. Rodriguez went to high school at Casselberry Lake Howell, about 7 miles from Rollins’ campus.

Rodriguez was “devastated” that coach Anthony Grant had left VCU to take over at Alabama. Perhaps, Rodriguez thought, it would be better to move closer to his parents’ home and end his career at Rollins, where some of his high school friends played.

Within a few weeks, though, it became obvious that Rodriguez was beginning to second-guess his decision. He participated in some of the Rams’ workouts before the end of the semester, and after returning to Orlando for a few weeks, he began calling some of his teammates in Virginia to see how things were going.

Eventually, Rodriguez figured it was time to contact Smart.

“He said, ‘If you come back, you’re going to have to be all in, with two feet in the circle,’ ” Rodriguez said. “That’s what sticks with me the most. I told them right away that I was in fully in and that I wanted to be back with the guys. He told me to call him back in the morning, just to make sure. I called him at 8 a.m.

“Ever since then, it’s been gravy.”

Teammates weren’t surprised Rodriguez re-joined the team.

“Everybody outside of our VCU family thought he was gone for good,” Rozzell said. “But I’m his roommate. I knew he wasn’t going anywhere from just talking to him on the phone each and every day.

“He was just heartbroken from Coach Grant leaving. He wanted to just go home and lay on the beach in Florida and get away from those summer-school sessions. Once he did that and got tired of being sunburned and got tired of being around the same people, he was ready to come home.”

The Rams are glad he did.

Joey Rodriguez doesn't put up huge point totals but he is the guy who keeps the Rams moving.
(Bob Donnan/US Presswire)

Two years later, Rodriguez is contributing 10.6 points and a team-high 5.1 assists per game. He’s averaging 8.3 assists in the NCAA tournament.

Rodriguez turned in the play of the game Friday when he found Bradford Burgess on an inbounds pass under the basket with 7 seconds remaining in overtime against Florida State. Burgess scored an easy layup that proved to be the difference in the 72-71 overtime victory.

With upsets over teams from the Pac-10, the Big East, the Big Ten and the ACC, VCU now turns its attention to Kansas – the only No. 1 seed remaining in the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks advanced to the Elite Eight with a 20-point rout of Richmond on Friday.

“They bullied [Richmond],” Rodriguez said. “They went right after them and had Richmond on their heels the whole night. We can’t let that happen, and I don’t think we will. We have different kinds of guys. We have a lot of tough guys on our team who love chances like this, to go after teams that are going to go after you.

“It’s going to be a bunch of individual fights where they’re going to try to attack us. We’ve got to stand our ground and try to attack them. It’s going to be a 12-round boxing match. You can’t win every round, but we’ve got to win most of them.”

With Rodriguez on the court, the Rams like their chances. In some ways, Rodriguez can’t help but get amused when he thinks about what would’ve happened had he never placed that call to Smart two years ago.

“I’d probably be working at Home Depot,” he said.

Instead, Rodriguez is hoping to continue his career overseas. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll soon own a degree in criminal justice that should enhance his chances of getting a solid job after graduation.

In the meantime, though, the lifelong Florida fan – Rodriguez used to attend Billy Donovan’s camps and still goes to Gators games – will attempt to lead his team to one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament.

“I’m just glad he’s on our side,” Burgess said.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Mar 26, 2011