Saturday, April 2, 2011, 1:34 p.m.
By Ryan OHalloran
HOUSTON With the Final Four less than five hours away, starting with VCU-Butler, a cleaning out of the notebook:
Despite streak, Rams were confident
It seems like a long time ago, but VCU limped into the postseason. The Rams had a stretch of four losses in five games.
We were very confident we could get out of it and it happened to be at the end of the season and the CAA tournament was like a new life in a way, senior Ed Nixon said. We had to trash the slump out and take a step forward.
Coach Shaka Smart famously burned a February calendar to signal a fresh start. The Rams didnt win the CAA (losing to Old Dominion in the final) but re-discovered their confidence with a win over George Mason in the semifinals.
We just werent focused and werent playing hard enough, Nixon said. On this run, weve been playing hard and our defense has been good and were making shots.
Said Brandon Rozzell: I believe it was an effort thing and it's effort on both ends of the court.
Smart leaned on friends and mentors in the coaching business for suggestions.
It was always good to hear from people you respect saying, Youre going to be alright, he said. Everybody goes through it, whether youre VCU or Kansas or a team that has a losing record.
Smart added: Obviously looking back, it was the turning point of our season to put that behind us. We really tried to focus on what was out there for us if we went about it the right way. When we lost a couple of games, they werent in very good spirits so it was my job as the coach to lift their spirits.
Howard: VCU is unique
Its tough to stump Butler senior forward Matt Howard, but a quick hiccup came on Friday when asked which team the Bulldogs have played this year compares to VCU.
Theyre a little bit different than any team weve played, he said, not mentioning a past opponent. That presents a new and interesting challenge.
Defensively, Howard said VCU, mixes things up and keeps teams off balance that really helps their defense. You have to be prepared for multiple looks theyll press, theyll play a little bit of zone and they have a good man-to-man defense. When youre scoring the ball really well, it gives you energy on defense and theyve scored as well as anybody.
Stevens doesnt freak out
While Smart is demonstrative on the sideline, Butler coach Brad Stevens is the polar opposite. Wearing his Nautica glasses because he hasnt had time to get new contacts, Stevens is a picture of calm regardless of the situation.
A freak out for him is fairly light but it gets your attention when he does get a little excited, Howard said. Its really helpful to our team. It doesnt matter what kind of stretch y our team is going through or if the other team is making a run, you look and hes moved on to the next play and is focused on that. Ive never seen a look of panic or were-in-trouble talk from him.
A remarkable story
Stevens made a good point on Friday not only are VCU and Butler mid-major teams in the Final Four, both are mid-major teams in the Final Four a year after losing NBA lottery picks.
Butler lost Gordon Hayward to the Utah Jazz and VCU lost Larry Sanders to the Milwaukee Bucks. Both left college early.
That both teams made it to Houston, Stevens said, is a remarkable story.
Enjoying the spotlight
No VCU player is having a better time during the tournament than point guard Joey Rodriguez.
I like it, he said of the attention. Im loving it. Its fun. Im living it and having a good time. Ive been playing college basketball for four years and waited for a chance like this to play in the national spotlight and were doing it at the biggest time of the year.
Calhoun impressed with young coaches
Smart and Stevens have a fan in Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who is going for his third national title this weekend.
I like watching them, Calhoun said. If those are two of the guys that are coming up to fill in the coaching ranks, I feel pretty good. I feel theyre both terrific guys and obviously theyre both terrific coaches.
Calhoun said Smart is brilliant, very smart, but cool a fighter.
Calhoun said Stevens, hasnt said the wrong word ever. I said, Brad, lighten up a little bit. I screw up every two minutes. Would you just screw up once?
The combined age of Smart and Stevens still doesnt add up to Calhoun, 68.
After 39 years as a Division I head coach, I can speak from experience but being here after 39 years is great for me, Calhoun said. I know its great for them. This is special, special stuff.
The media hotel was overrun with VCU fans late Friday night, many of them piling out of their cars that had Virginia license plates.
One student said after checking in that the drive from Richmond took 22 hours.
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