How ‘bout those Rams?

Bucks' Sanders enjoying ex-teammates' upstart NCAA run

By Truman Reed

Larry Sanders

Larry Sanders, drafted by the Bucks with the 15th overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft, played three seasons at VCU.

Marquette and Wisconsin certainly created a buzz with their advancement to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship.

After the first weekend of the tournament, though, one of its most thrilled local followers wasn't riding the bandwagon of either the Golden Eagles or the Badgers.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Larry Sanders has flashed some serious hops during his rookie season in the National Basketball Association. But Sanders was way up on Cloud Nine after watching his Virginia Commonwealth University Rams rattle off three victories during the tourney's first week to earn a ticket to the first Sweet 16 in their program's history.

Sanders, drafted by the Bucks with the 15th overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft, played three seasons at VCU and helped the Rams win two Colonial Athletic Association regular-season championships and one CAA tournament title. He also led them to an appearance in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, in which they lost a 65-64 first-round heartbreaker to UCLA.

The Rams, who finished 11-6 in the CAA and were 23-11 overall after losing 70-65 to Old Dominion in the CAA Tournament, learned on Selection Sunday that they had made the expanded NCAA Tournament field of 68. They would be among the four teams participating in the tourney's inaugural "First Four," slated to face USC in Dayton, Ohio on March 15.

Plenty of national critics expressed their opinion that VCU did not belong in the NCAA tourney field, and Sanders was subjected to some trash-talking directed at the Rams, too.

"Oh, yeah, man," Sanders said. "A lot of them. There were a lot of doubters. A lot of people were saying they shouldn't have been in there. I was in constant debates.

"It feels good to be able to go back to those people and look them in the face now."

With good reason.

VCU achieved its first NCAA tourney victory since its 2007 upset of Duke with a 59-46 triumph over USC.

Then the 11th-seeded Rams flew to Chicago and dismantled sixth-seeded Georgetown 74-56 at the United Center three days later.

And two days after that, they set the Windy City abuzz by dominating third-seeded Purdue 94-76 to make the Sweet 16 for the first time in their program's history. They were to face Florida State at the Alamodome in San Antonio on March 25.

"They're rollin', right?" Sanders asked with a big smile March 23. "I think the same thing I've always thought about them. They've got a good team, man.

"They had a lot of injuries this year that held them back. But I knew the potential of this team because most of the players were there when I was there. Most of them are seniors."

Sanders has been communicating with his former teammates on a regular basis since they began their amazing tournament run.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I've been talking to Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen and Brandon Rozzell, who are all seniors, along with Bradford Burgess, who's a junior, and Coach (Shaka) Smart.

"I was talking to Joey about the margin that they're beating teams by. The pressure is really on the next team they're playing in the tournament - those teams that are expected to win and get further. They've beaten two teams by about 20 points, and now the tables are turned.

"The good part about that is VCU has nothing to lose. Nobody expected them to be there. Nobody expected them to go any further once they did get in. So they have nothing to lose. All they have to do is go out there and run that break, shoot 3s and play fearless basketball."

Sanders said the Rams are well aware of their accomplishments, but they aren't about to rest on them.

"I think they definitely realize what they're doing,: he said. "It's school history and it's amazing. But at the same time, they still have that chip on their shoulder. There were a lot of things said about them this whole year.

"Not one player from this team made first-team all-CAA. That doesn't make sense to me. Joey, Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess ... It says a lot for the conference, but it's also a form of disrespect. Honestly, we're kind of used to that. For some reason, people don't like to see us win - sometimes even people in our own conference.

"But we're representing the conference now in the tournament and everyone seems happy. We're going to do it for us and the conference."

Sanders has enjoyed hearing commentators say that the VCU players - the same ones many said didn't belong in the NCAA field - are now causing matchup problems for their opponents.

"Yeah, I think when you look at the team, you've got some good players," Sanders said. "With the toughness and everything else that Joey brings to the team, I think he could probably start for almost any team in the country at point guard, just because of the way he runs the team, passes and scores the ball. When you've got a player like that on the floor leading you - and mind you he's the toughest player on the team - that's great.

"A lot of the guys are kind of unknowns, but people shouldn't speak on what they don't know."

Sanders was asked what it was like to play for Smart, whose coaching stock has skyrocketed since the tourney began.

"I had him for one year," Sanders said. "He's a great motivator. He's a great quoter. He has like a billion quotes and he's very good at using them for motivation. He's an emotional coach at times, but he's a smart, smart, smart guy. He was very encouraging."

Smart, just 33, is a native of Madison, Wisconsin. He was a three-year starter for Oregon High School, where he set assist records for a career (458), season (201) and single game (20).

Smart went on to become an all-conference player and team MVP at Kenyon College of Ohio, where he made the 1999 USA TODAY All-USA Academic Team. He was a three-year captain and set the Kenyon single-season (184) and career (542) records for assists. He was named the North Coast Conference Scholar Athlete of the Year.

"I knew when people started saying the things they said about VCU, Coach Smart would find a way to turn it around and use it as motivation to spark the team ... I just knew it," Sanders said. "When he gets in that locker room, you know he's going to throw it in the players' faces what other people said. If it makes you angry, it should."

Sanders has heard Smart's name popping up in connection with the coaching vacancies at Tennessee, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech, along with several other big-name programs.

"I actually read today where he said, `Now there's all this talk about me possibly getting a new job. But my focus is here. Every ounce of my focus is on taking VCU to the next level,'" Sanders said. "There are coaches who could be at a higher level, but aren't. They want to stay where they are and take their programs to a new level. There's plenty of coaches like that. Western Carolina's coach (Larry Hunter) is like that. He has stayed there and tried to make that program the best it can be.

"Coach Smart doesn't care about money and a lot of other stuff. He doesn't live in a big house or have a flashy car."

No matter what kind of vehicle Smart is driving, he has to be enjoying the ride these days.