Friday, April 1, 2011, 6:15 p.m.
By Ryan OHalloran
HOUSTON Homesick for the majority of his first two years in college, the coach who recruited him on his way to the Southeastern Conference and a regarded point guard arriving soon, Joey Rodriguez left the VCU program two years ago.
He and everybody in Rams Nation are glad he changed his mind.
When VCU continues its amazing NCAA tournament run Saturday at 6:09 p.m. against Butler in the first Final Four semifinal, its leader will be Rodriguez.
The senior point guard runs the show for the Rams, on and off the floor. Hell play his 142nd collegiate game and has shined in the tournament, averaging 10.2 points and nearly eight assists.
But even though his teammates all thought Rodriguez would return to the team (he did two to three weeks later), all of this five wins in the past two-plus weeks, the national stage, trending on Twitter almost never happened.
It started when coach Anthony Grant departed for Alabama. The Rams hired Shaka Smart, and Rodriguez quickly made his decision.
During the tumultuous period when Rodriguez left school to return home to Florida and contemplate a career reboot at Division II Rollins College, his phone hummed consistently with calls and text messages. One person wasnt calling Smart.
It was him leaving me alone, Rodriguez said. He didnt say anything to me, really. When I was at school, he told me I could come and work out, but other than that, he left me alone.
Smarts first crisis continued when VCU granted incoming freshman point guard Ben Eblen a release from his scholarship so he could sign with Grant and the Crimson Tide. Now the Rams needed a point guard. After much prodding from teammates and especially his family, Rodriquez reconsidered.
I had a feeling he was going to come back, but you knew it would take a lot because when Coach Smart told us he was gone, Joey wasnt even in Richmond, guard Bradford Burgess said. We called him every day, all hours of the day, telling him to come back.
Rodriguez said: It was just gradual coming to his decision. Guys were calling me and they were saying, We know youre coming back, blah, blah, blah, and I was like, No, Im not. A couple weeks later, I was back.
Rodriguez came back and has started all but one of 75 games Smart has coached the Rams.
The best thing about him is unbelievable toughness, mental and physical, Smart said. Ive been fortunate. Ive had a chance to be around a lot of great players, a lot of talented players, but I dont think Ive coached a guy as tough as Joey and mentally strong as Joey.
No matter what the situation is, he always believes in himself and his teammates. Hes very good at coming up with a way to win or to overcome the situation.
Sometimes, Rodriguez uses his words; other times, its by his actions.
Last week, it was via his passing only a combined 14 points but 15 assists in wins over Florida State and Kansas. His 200 assists this season rank fourth in VCU single-season history, behind Eric Maynor (224 and 210) and Rodriguezs junior year (208).
Earlier in the tournament, against Purdue in the third round, it was everything a 12-point, 11-assist, no-turnover masterpiece.
He did miss a shot or two (5 of 10), so I guess it wasnt perfect, Smart said. But it was close. It was very, very close. No, I couldnt have imagined a much better game. I love the way hes playing.
For the season, Rodriguez is averaging 10.5 points (down from 12.9 last season) and 5.1 assists.
Joey is definitely the best point guard Ive ever played with, freshman D.J. Haley said. Hes a great example of a leader. He has so much basketball IQ, its insane. It seems like he always knows where everybody is on the court.
Rodriguez said: Thats probably my best trait, how I know whats going on. If you put me at the center spot, I would know exactly what the bigs are doing. Just having somebody at the helm makes it easier for everybody else.
Two years after leaving VCU, Rodriguez will lead VCU Saturday night, just two wins from what would be a historically shocking championship.
There are only four teams left, and what weve done in the tournament, we think weve been the most dominant team, he said. Theres no doubt in our minds that we can win this whole thing.
Contact O'Halloran at email@example.com.