A decade later: Looking back at VCU’s 2011 Final Four run

Updated: Mar. 18, 2021 at 12:11 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - It’s been ten years since VCU took the River City on a wild ride through March Madness- an improbable string of victories that led to an infectious spirit of energy from wherever the Rams were playing to back in Richmond.

Rewind back to March of 2011, when an experienced VCU team led by Shaka Smart lost in the CAA championship game to Old Dominion. Some thought the Rams would fall short of the NCAA Tournament, others thought they didn’t belong in the field, but after a long week of waiting, VCU heard its name called on Selection Sunday. The Rams had made it, sneaking in, thanks to the newly created First Four.

“You see your name pop up and I think as the years went by, the more I look at it and I’m like wow, that actually really happened,” said Joey Rodriguez, a guard on the 2011 team who is now an assistant coach at Florida International.

“The tournament had added those few teams for the play-in game in Dayton just that year,” recalled Bradford Burgess, who currently coaches in the Oklahoma City Thunder organization. “We got in by the skin of our teeth.”

Ed Nixon was also a guard on the 2010-2011 squad, joining Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell and Jamie Skeen. Burgess was a junior with one year left to play.

“A lot of people doubted us,” Nixon remembered. “We already had a chip on our shoulder from the regular season, it already grew bigger from last season, so we were ready to go to war.”

And so it began. From Dayton to Chicago to San Antonio, VCU’s fight song rang throughout the nation. The Rams started things out with a 59-46 victory over Southern California to earn their way into the main bracket, then followed that up with double-digit wins over Georgetown and Purdue. After an overtime thriller against Florida State, the black and gold took care of Kansas in the Elite Eight, shocking the college basketball world.

“The beginning of the USC game until probably about halftime, there were some nerves in there,” said Rodriguez. “Once we came back out for that second half, we were rolling and it just kind of snowballed.”

“We were a forced to be reckoned with and we were just out there having fun,” Burgess added. “Just a group of guys out there without a care in the world except trying to win games.”

The run took VCU from the First Four to the Final Four in Houston, a first for the program. It was a spotlight unfamiliar to the players, from the size of the stadium and the crowd to the police escorts, interviews and fanfare that came with that big stage. VCU apparel was available in stores nationwide and security guarded the Rams when they traveled.

“It was crazy,” Nixon said. “It made it more difficult to stay focused, to be honest with you.”

“I still get chills thinking about the anthem and the huge flag on the court and all of us just standing there as a group with all those people ready to watch us,” remembered Rodriguez.

Wherever the Rams went, the excitement was felt back in the River City. From the streets to the Siegel Center, a sea of black and gold was present. Crowds gathered to see the team off and welcome them back from each round, while bars and restaurants were packed with fans eager to see the games and celebrate.

“Just walking back into the Siegel Center and seeing all of those people there at like 2:00 in the morning, ready to go, crazy energy,” Rodriguez smiled.

“It was great for guys like myself and Brandon Rozzell who were hometown kids and just could see the way the city is supporting us and are behind us in everything that we’re doing,” said Burgess.

Burgess played his high school basketball at Benedictine, while Rozzell is a Highland Springs product.

VCU’s run would end in the national semifinal, just two wins shy of a national championship. Butler topped the Rams, 70-62, bringing the incredible run to a close. The loss brought mixed emotions from the guys in the locker room.

“I could be that upset and I couldn’t even cry,” remembered Burgess. “We weren’t even supposed to be there.”

“People ask me about the Butler game and what happened in the Butler game, and I don’t even really know what happened in the Butler game,” Rodriguez said. “I never watched it. I don’t want to watch it.”

“We came further than anybody projected, we did something that had never been done in VCU history, but at the same time I’ve always felt like we could’ve won that thing,” Nixon said.

Connecticut would top Butler the following Monday, 53-41, to claim the 2011 national championship.

It’s a run that’s forever etched in history, one that elevated the VCU program, as well as the school itself, and gave those on the front lines of the experience lifelong memories to pass on.

“I will tell them it’s one of the best experiences of my life, I will tell them that I didn’t get there without my teammates and my brothers putting hard work on the line, and try to use that as a motivational thing for them,” said Nixon.

“That proved to me that what you’re doing individually doesn’t really matter,” Rodriguez added. “It’s a greater feeling when you’re part of a group, a collective, and you can put something together like that.”

VCU has sold out the Siegel Center for every home game since January 29, 2011. Since the Final Four run, the program has made the NCAA Tournament eight times in the nine years its been held.

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