By Chris Kowalczyk
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
When the Virginia Commonwealth University men's basketball team steps onto the vaunted Madison Square Garden floor for the first time on Wednesday,
it'll be a special moment in the program's history. However, for one Ram, the significance of VCU's NIT Season Tip-Off contest with 24th-ranked Tennessee will be hard to put into words.
"Right when I saw the schedule, I thought, 'I could really play at Madison Square Garden my senior year, and now that's really going to happen,'" said senior point guard Joey Rodriguez.
Although Rodriguez grew up near Orlando, Fla. his family originates from New York City and most of the Rodriguez clan still resides there. Rodriguez grew up a die-hard New York Knicks fan and dreamed of someday playing a game at "The World's Most Famous Arena."
"It's just awesome. I don't even know what to say," Rodriguez said. "I can't believe it. Maybe when I'm there…right now it's still unreal a little bit."
Rodriguez is expecting 30-40 family members and friends to make the trip to Manhattan, but he's leaving the task of distributing tickets to his father, Joe, and VCU Director of Operations Kyle Getter. In the meantime, he'll be working on calming his kid-on-Christmas nerves.
"[I'll be] nervous, probably like the first time I played at VCU," he said. "It'll be like a freshman moment. It's going to be something I look forward to, but it's going to be a nervous moment."
Defense was the talk of the preseason, but when the Rams allowed 86 points to UNC Greensboro in a season-opening victory on Nov. 12, one had to wonder if VCU still had work to do.
But with convincing victories over Winthrop and Wake Forest, keyed by the Rams' signature pressure defense, VCU is starting to look like a team that can win a game on either side of the ball.
"We just took what everyone said about us and used it for motivation," said senior guard Brandon Rozzell. "We know we can sit down and guard in the halfcourt, and sometimes we lose focus. Going into the season and from here on out, we want to try to stay focused on halfcourt defense and fullcourt pressure and trying to make teams feel uncomfortable."
Against Winthrop, VCU used suffocating halfcourt defense, a weakness for the Rams a year ago, to force the Eagles into 35-percent shooting night. The following evening, the Black and Gold sparked a 29-8 second-half to take the lead for good with its diamond press. VCU forced 23 Demon Deacon turnovers in the 90-69 victory, resulting in 31 points.
"I think we had a renewed sense of intensity," VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "One thing about this group of players, they get motivated when people call them out and people challenge them."
BRANDON COMES ALIVE
Rozzell's 23-point effort against UNC Greensboro at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center wasn't a big surprise. The senior guard long-ago professed his love for the Rams' home court, the same floor on which he hoisted a high school state championship trophy in 2007. But his performance in VCU's wins over Winthrop and Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C. are especially encouraging.
With 10 points against the Eagles on Monday and 23 more in Tuesday's triumph over Wake Forest, Rozzell is beginning to produce the same type of effort away from the Siegel Center that he's been known for in it. In three games, Rozzell is averaging 16.7 points and shooting a gaudy .625 (20-for-32) from the field, including .500 (10-for-20) from 3-point range.
The reasons for Rozzell's outstanding start to the 2010-11 season can be traced to last year's College Basketball Invitational Championship Game, when he torched Saint Louis for a career-high 27 points at the Billikens' Chaifetz Arena.
"It's about growing up. I'm a senior now and I finished off last year with a good road victory and a good road performance and Coach Smart brings that up a lot. I know I can do it, it's just happening now. I'm just starting to prove to my fans and my family that I'm the kind of player who can play outside of the Siegel Center.
TO THE POINT
Having played the position himself, Smart admits he has high expectations for his point guards. Through three games, it would be hard for even Smart to find fault with VCU point guards Rodriguez and Darius Theus.
The duo has directed an offense that is averaging 86 points per game to near-perfection. In three games, Rodriguez and Theus have handed out 41 assists, while committing just seven turnovers, a ratio of 6-to-1.
"It's been terrific," Smart said. "I hope we can keep up that ratio for the rest of the year. I guarantee we'll have an unbelievable year if those guys continue to play at that rate."
In the Rams' opening-night win over UNCG on Nov. 12, Rodriguez set school and CAA records with 17 assists. He is averaging 10.3 assists per game, but believes he's benefiting from improved play from the entire team.
"Our offense is really comfortable right now," Rodriguez said. "We've got everybody moving the ball and making the right pass, which makes it kind of hard to key on one person. With that, it makes it easier on everybody else and makes it easy for us to take care of the ball."