One by one, VCU has taken the big boys out.
And come Monday night, perhaps the deadstock sneakers worn by Joey Rodríguez and the rest of his Rams teammates could still have that Cinderella-like sparkle that would carry them to a national championship.
Virginia Commonwealth University, located in Richmond, is just two wins away from capping off an improbable run in the NCAA tournament and claiming its first national title.
Rodríguez and VCU will take on the Butler Bulldogs Saturday night in Houston, with the winner advancing to play the survivor of the Kentucky-Connecticut. The national championship game is Monday night.
Rodríguez, the 5-foot-10-inch floor general whose grandparents were born in Puerto Rico, is one of three players with Latino roots seeking a national title. The others are Kentucky’s Eloy Vargas, who was born in Moca in the Dominican Republic, and UConn’s Shabbazz Napier, who is also Boricua.
Rodríguez spoke to Fox News Latino about reaching the Final Four, the Rams' success and his confidence level.
How does it feel to go to the Final Four, playing the roll of Cinderella after being on the bubble?
As long as we keep winning, it feels great. The whole “Cinderella” thing is what it is. It’s something the media really creates. We’re just a team that has come together and is playing their best basketball at the right time.
Where does the confidence that allows you to be giant killers come from?
Our coaching staff has done a great job in getting us to a point where we feel completely confident in our game plan heading into each game. But the main thing is that we know that if we come to play with focus and energy on both ends of the court, we can play with anyone in the country. We’ve known that all year; it’s just a matter of us following through with the focus and energy part.
What has been the key to VCU's success in this magical run?
If you ask anybody involved with our program, the obvious answer is the defensive end of the court. At times this year, we’ve allowed our struggles to make some baskets to affect our defense, but that hasn’t been the case during this run. We have locked in defensively, which ultimately allows us to get out and run offensively, which creates easy baskets. The other thing has been the resolve that our team has shown. We’ve stuck together no matter what type of run the opposition puts together and that’s been huge.
What can you say about the job coach Shaka Smart has done with the team, especially yourself, and how he embraced you after you almost left VCU?
He’s great. He’s a young guy with a tremendous future and we’re lucky to have him at VCU. With him being so young, it’s allowed us as players to relate to him really well and, our relationships have been great. We know we can go to him to talk about anything; he’s like a best friend to us.
When one of the Morris twins told you, 'The run ends here,' did that motivated you? Did you share that remark with your teammates?
Of course it did, and of course I shared it with my teammates. We’re a group of guys that never wants to be put down. We want to prove anyone who doubts us wrong, and that comment just added more fuel to our fire.
You haven't missed a beat but have been banged up a bit. How is your body feeling?
I feel great, to be honest. We have a great strength and conditioning coach in Daniel Roose and a great trainer in Eddie Benion that have enabled me to play all year no matter what nagging injuries I have. At this point in the year, adrenaline really carries you through anything that might be bothering you. If you can’t get going with these games, you’ll never make it.
How does VCU match up against Butler? Any similarities?
The natural similarities is about us being mid-majors and having young coaches, but there are some other similarities. We both have great big men with Matt Howard for Butler and Jamie Skeen for us. Sheldon Mack is a tremendous player and will definitely challenge our perimeter defense, but if we stick to the game plan and focus for 40 minutes, I feel like we’ll definitely be in good position to play for the national championship.
Adry Torres, who has covered MLB, NFL, NBA and NCAA basketball games and related events, is a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @adrytorresnyc.