The VCU bench reacts as the Rams seal a 72-71 overtime win in the Sweet 16 against the Florida State Seminoles. (Photo by VCU Athletics/Scott K. Brown)
At Virginia Commonwealth University, there is the time before the Final Four, and the time after the Final Four.
For everyone new to Richmond or to basketball or who was, perhaps, living under a rock in the spring of 2011, a refresher: Second-year head coach Shaka Smart leads a scrappy but experienced VCU men’s basketball team through an up-and-down season that seems to end before it actually begins. What ensues is one of the most memorable NCAA tournament runs in the history of March Madness. A university and a city are swept up in a surge to prominence, fueled by the unprecedented accomplishments of a group of young men everyone counted out. History is made. Snoop Dog wears a VCU T-shirt. A nation ponders whether a cooler name than ‘Shaka Smart’ can be conceived.
It was madness. Complete. Utter. Madness.
To mark the five-year anniversary of the run, we tracked down 11 of the 14 players and 5 coaches, including Smart, who made it happen, and asked them to relive it from the beginning.
'It's March Now'
Senior forward Jamie Skeen is guarded by the University of Southern California’s center Nikola Vucevic in the teams’ First Four matchup. (Photo by Kyle Laferriere)
Daniel Roose, strength and conditioning coach: We had a really good summer with the older kids, especially. That freshman group that came in was very well thought of. It was looking like it was going to be a positive year for us, but nothing that you could look at then and say: ‘It will be a Final Four team.’
Brandon Rozzell, senior shooting guard: That team had some of the most competitive players on it I ever played with or against. There were practices and open pickup games where we would literally not speak to each other if we lost a drill. I loved that and it also made us closer off the court.
Eddie Benion, athletic trainer: They didn’t always win every game they were supposed to win. There were games when they blew people away, and then there were games they were supposed to win and lost at the end — James Madison University at home, University of Alabama Birmingham on the road. Games where they were up and they ended up folding, or they never showed up.
Heath Houston, freshman forward: February, most people don’t remember, we lost four out of five games in that month leading up to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. As soon as that happened, everybody automatically assumed there was no more at-large bid. It was do or die.
Joey Rodriguez, senior starting point guard: We were so used to winning to go through that late in the year. It was a struggle playing at home because we knew our fans were so pissed at us — you can hear fans when they say stuff about you. It wasn’t a fun time playing at home.
David Hinton, redshirt sophomore forward: Coach Smart came to practice. He had a trashcan and one of those huge desk calendar pages that was the month of February. He took a lighter, lit it, and stuck it in the trashcan, and said, ‘February’s over. It’s March now.’
Mike Jones, assistant coach: We went into the Colonial Athletic Association tournament on a down note in terms of the team not having a lot of success in February. Shaka did the famous burn the calendar deal, and our guys just kind of threw those games out of their minds and refocused. Jamie Skeen hit a game-winning shot against Drexel in the first game. We got revenge on George Mason. We lost in the championship game to Old Dominion University, but we played very well.
Bradford Burgess, junior starting forward: It started off well, then ODU went up big, about 20 points or so. Then we battled back at the end, cutting it to about a one- or two- possession game. We ended up losing, and we thought that was it. We thought that was our season.
Jamie Skeen, senior starting forward: I was sure that we weren’t going to make it [into the NCAA tournament], and we were going to go to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) or some stupid loser’s tournament.
Heath Houston: We watched the selection show: It was me, Juvonte Reddic, DJ Haley, Rob Brandenberg and Reco McCarter. We were in Coach Smart’s office and they showed the First Four selection. The first team that popped up was UAB. We had lost to UAB right before Christmas. Right then and there, Coach told us ‘That could have been us.’
Juvonte Reddic, freshman forward: To be honest, I thought it could go either way. I always thought we had a chance, but that chance was not a good chance.
DJ Haley, freshman starting center: Then our name popped up on the screen and the whole office went crazy … We all jumped through the roof.
Rob Brandenberg, freshman shooting guard: When our name came on the screen, it just felt like, you’re in a car accident, you can’t breathe, you get some CPR, and you can breathe again. It felt like a new life, a new season.
Junior forward Bradford Burgess tries to finish through contact in the Rams’ Sweet 16 matchup against the Florida State Seminoles. (Photo by VCU Athletics/Scott K. Brown)
While the team and its fans rejoiced, national sports pundits lambasted the selection committee’s decision to include a 23-11 VCU squad as an 11-seed in the tournament’s newly expanded field of 68 teams (2011 was the first year the NCAA instituted the First Four). The team harnessed the backlash for motivation en route to a 59-46 win against the University of Southern California in its first-round game in Dayton, Ohio. Two days later, the Rams shocked Georgetown University in the second round with 26 points from Brandon Rozzell. A third win in five days against Big-10 powerhouse Purdue University earned the school its first-ever trip to the Sweet 16.
Joey Rodriguez: Jay Bilas [ESPN NCAA basketball commentator] was like, ‘They don’t even know that the basketball is round,’ talking about the selection committee’s decision to put us in the tournament. I watch basketball all the time. I watch him all year talk about the big schools. The first time he talks about us, that’s what he says about us. So that got me heated, and I was ready to freakin’ run through a wall at that point.
Jamie Skeen: Those first couple games, them boys looking at us like ‘We’re about to dominate these guys.’ USC was much bigger than us, but we were way more talented than a lot of those guys. We blew those guys out because they took us lightly.
Eddie Benion: They had two pros on the team; one was supposed to be a first-round NBA draft pick. We didn’t just win by two points, we beat them.
Will Wade, assistant coach: Once we got past Southern Cal, we all kind of looked at it and thought we had a pretty good chance against Georgetown. Their point guard had been injured for most of the second half of the season; they weren’t really in rhythm.
Heath Houston: They weren’t that big of a team. They were kind of guard-oriented. That fit our game plan in terms of the Havoc defense. We were able to pressure them and get them out-of-whack, cause turnovers and get easy baskets.
Juvonte Reddic: We beat them by, like, 18. I think that’s when I realized we had something going on, that we could actually do some big-time damage in the tournament.
David Hinton: Purdue had two All-Americans and we took them out.
Eddie Benion: We annihilated them. It was over immediately.
Rob Brandenberg: After the Purdue game, we were like, ‘Yo, we’re going to Houston.’ The fans were going nuts. We said, ‘We’re going to Houston. It’s happening.’
Shaka Smart, head coach: What was different, I mean the biggest thing was when we got the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, I really think that everyone in our program was playing with nothing to lose. There was an appreciation level for the opportunity that I’ve never seen before or since — among everybody.
Reco McCarter, freshman guard: Within the first five or 10 minutes of each of those games, I could already tell what type of night it was going to be. Guys were just clicking off the rip. Everybody was playing their hearts out.
Bradford Burgess: No VCU team had ever made it that far, and we were beating teams pretty handily. At that point, our closest game was by 13 points or so. We were feeling confident. We were feeling good. And we were hungry for more.
Shaka Smart: We had beaten Purdue on a Sunday afternoon in Chicago. We’re walking back to the locker room, and the most physically imposing and aggressive team I’ve ever seen is waiting in the hallway to play the next game, and that’s Florida State.
Richmond is renamed Hoopsville, USA as both VCU and the University of Richmond Spiders advance to the Sweet 16 (The Spiders promptly lose to Kansas by 20). ESPN talking heads Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas eat crow. The Rams’ hot streak earns them a date in San Antonio with the Florida State Seminoles, a formidable Atlantic Coast Conference team with towering forwards and the nation’s most dogged defense. What transpires is the most memorable finish of the tournament run.
Shaka Smart: We started watching tape on Florida State. I remember Mike Jones, the assistant coach at the time, came into my office at the time and just said, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to score on these guys.’
Daniel Roose: Florida State was one of the best teams in that tournament. They were ridiculous. You talk about grown-ass men; that’s what we were up against that game. We’re rolling out with Joey and Brandon in our backcourt, all 300-pounds total of them combined.
David Hinton: They were the No. 1 defensive team in the country that year.
Jamie Skeen: At the time, I was 21 or 22. They had a guy on their team who was 27 and had come out of the Army, and he had to guard me. I was like, ‘How is this fair, man? He’s 27!’ He looked like a Greek god. He was chiseled, strong, and I couldn’t do nothing with him.
DJ Haley: What made them a very difficult opponent, they really locked down on defense and made it really difficult to get shots up. Quite honestly, we were getting one chance and one chance only. If the ball went up, they were getting the rebound. They were pretty tenacious in the second half.
Mike Jones: It was a battle, and we knew it was going to be a battle until the very last possession just because of our want-to and desire to win that game, and how talented they were.
Shaka Smart: The end of that Florida State game: We’re down one and we come down, we’re trying to get some offense going. Joey drives, doesn’t get a very good shot; they block it. It goes out of bounds with seven seconds left. We call a timeout, call an inbounds play that had been a really good play for us over the course of the year. We come out of the timeout. Stan Jones, an assistant for Florida State, is literally yelling at his team as we walk back out on the floor. He’s yelling out exactly what we’re going to do. Their coach chooses to take a timeout. We go into the second timeout, and we knew they knew what we were going to run, so we changed the play. It’s out of the same alignment, but it’s not the same play.
Bradford Burgess: I was probably the third option. As the play developed, I saw Brandon and Skeen kind of bump into each other. I inched toward Brandon to set the screen for him. I saw an opening and slipped the screen, and Joey saw it too, and it was right there before the five-second count.
Ed Nixon, senior starting guard: That was the longest five seconds of my life.
Joey Rodriguez: I still to this day don’t know why I waited so long. I was counting in my head, but, I don’t know, I just had a feeling. I just kind of waited, and he was open with the slip, and the rest is history.
Bradford Burgess: I was able to lay it up. It felt like it was going so slow. I was thinking in my head, should I lay it up or should I dunk it?
Eddie Benion: The lay-up by Brad was spectacular. They threw the ball down the court, and we had to get right back into defense. Rob Brandenberg got the block. That was monumental.
Mike Jones: There’s a picture of immediately after the block when we realize we won the game. Our whole team bench is going crazy. A couple of our assistants noticed in the picture that I was still sitting on the bench when everyone else was jumping around. There were all these jokes like, ‘Why weren’t you celebrating? What are you too old to celebrate with us?’ They’re all young guys. I said, ‘I wasn’t celebrating because that game doesn’t really mean anything. If we beat Kansas, that’ll mean something because we’re going to the Final Four. If we beat them, I’ll celebrate with you guys.’
‘We're Going to the Final Four'
Jamie Skeen dunks in the Rams’ Elite Eight matchup against the Kansas Jayhawks as KU forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris look on. (Photo by VCU Athletics/Scott K. Brown)
The players and coaches cannot savor Friday’s storybook finish for long. In two days, they have an Elite 8 showdown with the Kansas Jayhawks, winners of 35 of 37 games that season. The Jayhawks are led by a frontcourt tandem of twins: Marcus and Markieff Morris. Head coach Bill Self has won a national championship in the not-too-distant past. The Rams enter the game as double-digit underdogs.
Will Wade: We had a meeting at the hotel that overlooked the riverwalk there in San Antonio. The hotel was going crazy, everyone was so excited after we beat Florida State. Coach met with the players, then sent them back to their rooms and the staff sat down. Coach Smart said to Coach Jones, he said, ‘So Jonesie, what do you think about Kansas?’ And Coach Jones put his glasses down and said, ‘They’re 35-2 — not a lot of weaknesses.’
Mike Jones: They seemed, when you looked at them initially, invincible. But what we were able to discover is that the things that we were good at, they were not good at. They were not good in transition. We were great in transition. They were not good at ball-screen defense. We were great at ball-screen offense. And they didn’t handle pressure well.
Jamie Skeen: From what I knew, they were supposed to win it all. When we played them, everyone was telling me, ‘Watch out for those two Morris twins. They’re some bullies. They’re going to try and get in your head.’
Joey Rodriguez: [Markieff and Marcus Morris] shook our hands during the pregame captain’s handshake, and we were like, ‘What’s up, good luck.’ And they said, ‘You guys had a good run, but this shit’s about to come to an end.’ I remember them saying that and we were like, alright. I jogged over to coach Smart and told him what they said, and he got all fired up.
Bradford Burgess: I was fired up from the jump, just from seeing everyone in our corner from back home. With all the odds stacked up against us, with the analysts saying we didn’t have a chance, we were using everything as motivation to get the victory.
Daniel Roose: I remember Brandon Rozzell came down and hit about his third three-pointer right beside the Kansas bench. [head coach] Bill Self was yelling at his kid, ‘You’ve got to get a hand up.’ And Brandon turned around and said, in language that couldn’t be printed, he said, ‘You better put a hand up.’ Not lacking in confidence, not at all.
Rob Brandenberg: In the second half, they blitzed us and you kind of felt the game slipping. Then coach got that technical foul.
Shaka Smart: It definitely was shifting in their favor. That was part of why I got the technical foul. I don’t get a lot of technical fouls. We needed to gain an edge. We were allowing them to be the aggressors. We had been the aggressors for the majority of the first half. But our guys did a good job. They kept their composure. I remember Joey [Rodriguez] was mad at me when I got the technical foul. He said ‘Come on, Coach.’ But I think it got their attention. When you have an older team, guys that have been through the wars and you’ve been through them together, that’s a powerful thing. Those guys made big plays down the stretch.
VCU head coach Shaka Smart celebrates with his team in the locker room after the Rams defeat Kansas en route to the Final Four. (Photo by VCU Athletics/Scott K. Brown)
DJ Haley: There was a point, I think it was like, 38 seconds left on the clock and we were up. I think we had just gotten a foul or something. At that point, all of us just knew that we had won the game. I just remember when the buzzer went off, we all ran on the court. It was the most surreal moment. We’re going to the Final Four. There was so much going at that point. At that 38-second mark, it just all hit.
Rob Brandenberg: We were able to win by double digits. I remember seeing [Markieff and Marcus Morris] on the bench crying, and I was just laughing.
Mike Jones: I ran to join in the celebration like I promised. When I was jumping in the huddle with the assistants, Will Wade was coming out of the huddle and he inadvertently hit me in the mouth with an elbow. My tooth got knocked out.
‘We Could Have Won the Whole Thing'
Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez tries to squeeze a pass around Butler forward Matt Howard. (Photo by VCU Athletics/Scott K. Brown)
VCU beats teams from five of the six power conferences before traveling to Houston for the Final Four. They face the Butler Bulldogs, another mid-major with a young upstart coach, Brad Stevens. The Bulldogs are making their second trip in a row to the Final Four, after losing the prior year in the championship game. The game, on April 2, 2011, takes place in front of more than 75,000 people at the Houston Texans football arena. The Bulldogs cut VCU’s championship bid one game short.
Ed Nixon: By the time we had to play Butler, there weren’t any quiet walks to the library. You always had people coming up to you for different things, pictures, autographs, stuff like that.
Rob Brandenberg: The Final Four is a different beast. It’s a lot leading up to the game. Final Four dinners. Final Four TV shows. More media attention. Shooting promos for the broadcast. Phone is blowing up.
Mike Jones: We just wanted to get on with the game.
Rob Brandenberg: I don’t think Butler was the better team than us, especially at the time. They were a great team, but they were just more focused.
Bradford Burgess: Ed was battling cramps, so he didn’t play as much as he normally would have. He was the primary perimeter defender.
Juvonte Reddic: I think we shot like 27 percent from the field. I know it wasn’t good. I think the big difference was we couldn’t knock down the shots we had made throughout the tournament.
David Hinton: We just played so terrible. We were cold.
Will Wade: We had a lead with 12 or 13 minutes left. We got in some foul trouble that hurt us. We couldn’t keep Skeen out there for an extended period of time. They had the one kid, Shelvin Mack, that really drove us at the end. It really, really hurt us.
Jamie Skeen: There was, like, four or three minutes left in the game. I hit a really long three-pointer and got fouled shooting it. I thought we still had time to come back. It was time for me to shoot my free throw for the four-point play and I missed it and I was like, ‘Dang.’
Brandon Rozzell: The court in a football arena was awkward for us. But no excuse, Butler was the better team and got the win.
Reco McCarter: Not to discredit Butler, because they were a good team that year with some great players, but I think the only reason they beat us was because of the experience they had the year before. Them being there the year before was to their advantage.
David Hinton: I couldn’t believe it was over. We saw all those fans that came down to Houston. Then you think about it, and we were one of the last four teams in college basketball. We still had fans cheering us when we got back that Sunday night.
Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess and Shaka Smart take questions from reporters after the Rams lose to Butler in the Final Four. (Photo by VCU Athletics/Scott K. Brown)
Shaka Smart: The overwhelming feeling was just a sadness that that time was over, that special stretch of time. As a coach, and probably as a player too, what makes sports so special, we had, for the month of March, we had a true team. We had guys pulling for one another, caring about one another, not worrying about individual agendas. Just truly enjoying being together and doing what no one of us individually could hope to do.
Joey Rodriguez: We could have won the whole thing. Everybody I talk to now, even non-VCU fans, say that all the time. They thought we were going to win it.
Thousands of fans rally on West Broad Street after VCU advances to the Final Four. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
VCU remains the only team in the tournament’s history to go from the First Four to the Final Four. The team wins an ESPY for “Best Upset” for its victory over Kansas. Graduating senior Joey Rodriguez appears on the “Lopez Tonight” show. Head Coach Shaka Smart becomes a household name and the most popular man in Richmond. Filmmaker Spike Lee becomes the team’s most prominent fan. The Final Four run is the first of five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances the Rams will make under Smart, but the school has not advanced past the tournament’s round of 32 since reaching to the Final Four. Smart takes the head coaching job at the University of Texas in April 2015. He is replaced by Will Wade. The two schools squabble over the trademark rights to ‘Havoc,’ the name of Smart’s vaunted pressing defense. As of press time, VCU has 81 consecutive home sellouts at the Siegel Center.
Brandon Rozzell: We played for each other every single game of that tournament. It wasn’t to shine on national TV; it was to play and win another game, to have another moment, another practice, another travel day, and another night in a hotel with each other. We were really close.
Shaka Smart: It was the best experience I’ve ever had in basketball.
Bradford Burgess: Nothing that I know from a sports perspective has ever caught the city’s attention like what happened that March and the first weekend of April. It really was like an out-of-body experience. It was unbelievable, man.
Heath Houston: After that run, I don’t think you can buy a Siegel Center ticket anymore.
Ed Nixon: We had VCU greats before us who did really good things for the school: Calvin Duncan; Kendrick Warren; Eric Maynor. We put ourselves on that list with that run.
David Hinton: Eric Maynor’s shot against Duke put VCU on the map. That Final Four run made VCU global.
Will Wade: Right after the Final Four, I went recruiting in Sheridan, Wyoming to a junior college to see a big kid. I flew to Denver, then I flew this little Great Lakes Airlines. It was like 10 seats, one pilot, no flight attendant. No nothing. It was pretty primitive. The Sheridan airport has one gate. It’s not even a real airport. The TSA lady in security, I was walking through in my VCU shirt getting ready to fly back, and she was, like, ‘Oh, VCU. I was rooting for you guys in the NCAA Tournament.’