By Chris Kowalczyk
Rob Brandenberg doesn't often lack confidence. You can tell by the way he talks, the way he carries himself. He's a self-assured 18-year-old.
The manner in which Brandenberg plays basketball is very much an expression of his inner self. He flies up and down the court with reckless abandon, streaking to the rim on offense or locking up the opposition on defense. He's confident and fearless. He plays without hesitation. Where other freshmen balk, Brandenberg attacks.
It's that attitude that has allowed Brandenberg to become VCU's most pleasant surprise this season. Through 31 games, the nimble, 6-2 guard is averaging 5.8 points and shooting 37 percent (27-of-74) from 3-point range. Brandenberg has given the Rams an 'X' factor off the bench, combining offensive punch with the defensive mindset of a junkyard dog.
Earlier this season, when senior Brandon Rozzell suffered a broken hand, Brandenberg stepped in to fill the void. On Jan. 12, Brandenberg supplied 22 points in a win at William & Mary. A week later, he dropped 23 in a victory over Georgia State, the most by a VCU freshman in a decade.
Brandenberg's success begins with his unwavering confidence. It provides him with the ability to play basketball all-out, to the best of his ability.
"I'm the type of player where, if I do one good thing on the court, I just feed off of it," Brandenberg, a native of Gahanna, Ohio, said. "If I make one basket, I'm just like, alright, let's get another one, or if I get a deflection or a rebound, I just feed off myself. I think that really helps me too. It doesn't really take much to get me going."
But it wasn't long ago that Brandenberg found that confidence shaken, an experience that left him questioning his abilities.
During his sophomore year at Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Brandenberg was relegated to the junior varsity team. For years, Brandenberg had starred at every level, AAU, middle school, youth league, freshman team, you name it. He had his sights set on a varsity spot, but when he was informed that he didn't make the team, Brandenberg was left confused and upset.
"That's where I get my chip on my shoulder," Brandenberg said. "I think that still exists because I remember just being real mad, just disappointed. I just remember working on my game like crazy, just because I knew I should've been on that team."
Brandenberg's season with the J.V. team was torture. Sure, he was putting up NBA Jams-type numbers and the team was mauling opponents, but that wasn't enough. There was no challenge, no opportunity to become the best.
"There were some times where I just wanted to quit and not play basketball anymore, just because, the J.V. level, we dominated. I dominated. It wasn't even fun," Brandenberg said. "I wanted to play against the top competition and I didn't get that chance.
"My confidence was shaken, but I give all praise to my mom. She always tells me to be patient, your time will come. She tells me that to this day, you know, just to be patient."
Brandenberg took his mom's advice to heart and hit the gym. The following season, he made varsity and averaged 17.5 points per game for Lincoln. He started tearing up the AAU circuit during the summer between his junior and senior years, and college offers began popping up.
Initially, Brandenberg had only a couple offers on the table from Wright State and Akron, but after dropping 34 points on Houston Select during an AAU game in Cincinnati, his phone blew up. VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart called Brandenberg that night and offered, "on the spot." Offers from Miami of Ohio, Kent State, Ohio, Butler, Western Carolina, Appalachian State and others poured in.
Eventually, he picked VCU, partially for the style of play and tradition, but also because of the relationship he forged with Smart.
"He talked to me like more than just a recruit," Brandenberg said. "Some coaches talk to you not as a person, just as a recruit. The things that me and coach talked about were just personal things. He was interested in my life and things like that. I thought, he's probably going to be more than a coach, so I liked that."
However, when he arrived at VCU, Brandenberg didn't exactly have the world at his feet. He was joining a veteran, guard-laden team. Players told Smart that Brandenberg was struggling physically during summer pickup games. He also had a hard time in the weight room, where at one point VCU Strength Coach Daniel Roose ranked Brandenberg 14th out of 14 players. Smart and the staff considered redshirting him.
But much like he responded two years ago when he was cut from the varsity squad, Brandenberg flipped a switch. When the team started workouts in the fall, Brandenberg picked up the Rams' 50-plus play playbook faster than VCU's five other newcomers. In addition, he showed the high motor that has since endeared him to Ram fans.
"Daniel Roose often shares his ratings with the guys, and that really lit a fire in Rob," Smart said. "He has a good way about him. When somebody challenges him or calls him out, of saying, 'I'm going to show this guy,' and then going out and doing it."
Although Brandenberg still has his moments of "freshmanitis", the sinewy guard is off to a great start. It's some as a surprise to some, but not to Brandenberg.
"I know people outside the program are probably surprised," Brandenberg said. "But to be honest, I've always had a lot of confidence in myself and knew that I could come in and produce, whether it was scoring, playing defense, rebounding, passing, whatever it was. I knew I could do something to help this team win at a consistent level."