Strolling down Broad Street on Tuesday, Joey Rodriguez was startled when a man stopped his car in traffic, hopped out with a camera and asked Rodriguez to pose for a photo.
This shortly after Rodriguez received a standing ovation from his VCU classmates in research methods.
So it goes when you're a starter on the first team in school history to reach the
's Sweet 16.
"I took it for what it's worth," Rodriguez said, smiling and shaking his head at the encounters. "We still have work to do."
Now there's a point guard channeling his head coach.
"We're not satisfied," Rams coach Shaka Smart said. "I think anyone who's watched us knows that if we continue playing the way we've been, we've got a legitimate chance."
A legitimate chance to defeat Florida State in Friday's Southwest Regional in San Antonio. And yes, a chance to best either Kansas or Richmond on Sunday for a trip to the
Three weeks ago, the notion was foolhardy. The Rams had closed an otherwise excellent regular season by losing four of their last five games, three at home.
But VCU upset top-seeded
tournament semifinals and lost a taut final to Old Dominion, earning an
at-large bid that many unjustly mocked.
No matter their credentials — wins over UCLA, ODU, Mason and Wichita State, all away from home — the Rams were nervous on Selection Sunday. So nervous that some couldn't watch.
Sixth man Brandon Rozzell shunned the television for his laptop. In an adjacent room, Rodriguez was glued to the TV.
"I didn't want to get heartbroken," Rozzell said. "I heard him scream, and I knew we got in."
Assigned to the new-fangled "First Four" in Dayton, Ohio, the Rams dusted Southern California 59-46, moving into the bracket as a No. 11 seed in Chicago. There VCU pillaged sixth-seeded
by 18 points each.
"They may not win the national championship," former Georgetown coach
gushed during the Purdue broadcast, "but I'll be damned if there's a coach out there who wants to play them."
Led by Bradford Burgess' 23 points and Rodriguez's 11 assists and no turnovers, the Rams shot a season-best 56.9 percent against the Boilermakers.
"Spoilermakers," read the headline on VCU's website.
"It's a great story, particularly the way we played," Smart said. "We haven't just won three games. We've beaten three high-level … opponents by a combined total of 49 points. …
"To win the (Purdue) game the way we did, I think it says a lot about what we're capable of."
What did Smart think his squad was capable of entering the tournament?
"Not think, I know," he said. "Our team's capable of beating anybody we play if we do the right things and we stay committed to our game plan."
That plan centers on the full-court, pressure defense Smart learned as an assistant under
. VCU hired Smart two years ago when coach Anthony Grant accepted the Alabama job.
Smart, 33, is the fifth coach to guide the Rams to the NCAA tournament. The program's success began with J.D. Barnett in the 1980s, followed by Sonny Smith, Jeff Capel and Grant.
Barnett's teams won four NCAA games in five appearances, and in 2007 Grant and VCU upset Duke in the first round. But never had the Rams reached a regional semi.
"It's humbling for me and our players because there's been a lot of terrific players and coaches at VCU," Smart said.
And to think, less than two weeks ago, many decried VCU's inclusion in the field at the expense of teams such as Virginia Tech, Colorado and Alabama.
"It's just been weird," freshman Rob Brandenberg said. "Just last week we were getting murdered, people saying we didn't belong."
"We used the comments made by some in the media as an unbelievable fuel," Smart said. "Now it's important that we make sure that we still have that motivation."
Except that now folks are swooning. The Rams arrived home from Chicago at 3 a.m. Monday and found an entire city smitten with VCU and Richmond basketball.
"Stepchild to darling is what we call it," Smart said.