VCU EMBRACING SECOND CHANCE IN CBI
By Chris Kowalczyk
Virginia Commonwealth University Coach Shaka Smart is a big believer in using quotes as a motivating tool. Given his team’s recent advance to the College Basketball Invitational semifinals, a tournament the Rams had hoped to avoid, Smart would probably enjoy Napoleon Hill’s thoughts on second chances.
“Opportunity often comes disguised in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat.”
In Monday’s 93-86 win over the College of Charleston in the CBI quarterfinals at the Verizon Wireless Arena, VCU started to look like a group of guys embracing a common, redemptive goal. The Rams are a relatively young team, with zero seniors in their starting lineup, and there are plenty of lessons to learn.
Junior Jamie Skeen, a transfer from Wake Forest, booked a career-high 18 points. Skeen, who is averaging 7.9 points on the year, has averaged 16.0 points in two CBI contests. Skeen’s season has been a mix of interesting flashes of star quality, sandwiched between unproductive stretches.
However, Skeen sees this tournament as a chance to assert himself, something he’s done with scary efficiency. The 6-8 post player has knocked down 14-of-20 field goals in the last two games.
“I’m just trying to pick up my role because next year I feel like I’m going to be more in the offense,” Skeen said. “So, I’m just trying to help the team as much as possible. I just decided to start shooting the ball a little bit more. “
Meanwhile, Brandon Rozzell, a player with equally scary hot and cold streaks, dropped a career-high 20 points on Monday, while mercurial center Larry Sanders provided 14 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks in one of his strongest statistical games of his season. Point guard Joey Rodriguez, a major question mark prior to the season, delivered a commanding 19-point, nine-assist performance.
Freshman Troy Daniels might be one of the greatest beneficiaries of VCU’s CBI run. The sweet-shooting freshman guard averaged just over five minutes a game during the regular season, but has played 17 and 14 minutes, respectively, in two CBI games and has averaged 7.0 points.
“Just keeping this team together is going to benefit us in the long run,” Rozzell said. We’re only losing two players next year, so each and every game we can play is building team chemistry.”
Rozzell might be onto something. In 2009, Richmond advanced to the CBI semifinals. UTEP reached the championship series, while Vermont maneuvered its way into the quarters. All three teams reached the NCAA Tournament this season. Old Dominion won the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, an event similar to the CBI. The Monarchs captured the CAA championship a couple of weeks ago and stunned Notre Dame, 51-50 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“[It’s an opportunity] to get more wins, play for a championship,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a lot of things this year that we struggled with, so we get a chance to work on those things, like late-game situations and those things and just try to get momentum into next year. Old Dominion and Richmond played in these things last year and you saw what they did. It’s just a chance to have momentum going into this summer.”
Not that the Rams would’ve chosen this particular road to improvement. First, there was the heartbreaking overtime loss to Old Dominion in the CAA Tournament semifinals. Although the Rams NCAA dream died with that loss, nearly everyone within the program, and plenty of people outside of it, assumed an NIT bid was a lock. VCU is still waiting for that NIT invitation.
The challenge for Smart was to regroup his team and sell them on what the CBI had to offer, more games, more learning opportunities, more competition.
“I think that it goes without saying that a lot of our guys were disappointed by not making the NIT,” Smart said. “I think you have a choice after that how you’re going to respond and what you want to do. I give our guys a lot of credit. They made the choice to keep fighting, keep competing and keep playing. This is what you come to college for, to be a student-athlete, to continue playing basketball games. I’d give anything, I tell our guys all the time, to go back and play another game and now they have another opportunity on Wednesday to play.”
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