VCU Assistant Coach Mike Jones Q + A
From an at-large bid to two wins from Disney World.
by Heather Robinson /@Heather_Rose_
Every year we witness one team’s cinderella story in the NCAA tournament and this year, we’ve all watched as an at-large pick, Virginia Commonwealth University, who many feel should not have been selected for the Tournament, has advanced to this weekend’s Final Four in Houston, TX.
VCU finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association, with a conference record of 12-6 and an overall record of 20-10.
Entering the post-season, very few thought it possible for VCU to make the NCAA Tournament, as the Rams had lost four of their last five games. However, VCU had a couplestellar performances in the CAA tournament, advancing to the semi-finals before losing to eventual tournament champion Old Dominion.
Given the opportunity to participate in this year’s March Madness, the Rams haven’t looked back, knocking out five teams in the past two weeks, all from major conferences.
Against the #1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks last Sunday, the Rams watched as a 17-point lead dwindled down to two with 13:13 left in the 2nd half, leaving the VCU faithful wondering if this could be the end of its team’s magical run.
The Rams responded to the pressure, going on an 11-3 run to push their lead back up to 10, not allowing the Jayhawks to get closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Assistant coach of the VCU Rams, Mike Jones, spoke with SLAM about the psyche of the team and what winning a National Championship could mean for the program.
SLAM: What was your reaction when you found out your team would be playing in the 2011 NCAA Tournament?
Mike Jones: I was very excited. We believed that we had a chance to get in because we had some big wins. We played in the pre-season NIT, finishing third behind Villanova and Tennessee, who were playing very well at the beginning of the season. We beat UCLA and then we had a big bracket buster game which was nationally televised against Wichita State, on the road. We played well in our [Colonial Athletic Association] tournament so we were optimistic. We didn’t think we had a great chance but once we found out we got in, we felt like, “Let’s play hard and give this thing a run.”
SLAM: What would you say to the naysayers who felt that you shouldn’t have received a bid into the NCAA tournament?
MJ: Obviously, it’s irrelevant. We’re just concentrating on who we have to play next, which right now is Butler in the semi-finals game. So, we’re just going to focus on them and try to take them out.
SLAM: How would you describe your team’s run thus far in the tournament?
MJ: It’s been a lot of fun watching the guys really take hold of the stuff that we’ve been teaching them the last two years. We’re been preaching the same messages for a couple years. Obviously with us coming in as a new [coaching] staff last year, it took them some time to really grasp everything that we were saying and to completely buy into everything because they had had a lot of success under their previous coach. But this year, they’ve played more as a team and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the run.
SLAM: Have the players felt any pressure thus far?
MJ: Not at all. I think it’s been more relaxing once they knew they were in. The pressure for them was to get into the tournament. So once we got in, we said, “Let’s make the most of it and see what we can do. You never know when you’ll get that opportunity again.” We’ve got four seniors on this team, so their next loss is their last. We have to just let it ride.
SLAM: How were you guys able to turn it on and perform so well under the bright lights of March Madness?
MJ: It’s a misconception. We didn’t struggle, we lost games. Everyone equates losing games to struggling and to a large extent, it is, but we played really good teams. Our last five regular season games were against: Old Dominion, who won the conference tournament; George Mason, who had the longest winning streak in the nation; Wichita State, which at the time, had a better chance of making the [NCAA] tournament than we did. We had to go and play them on their home court, which is one of the three toughest places to play in the country; Drexel, who had beaten Louisville by 20 on Louisville’s home court; and then James Madison, who was arguably the most talented team in our league. They didn’t play great all the time but they were motivated to play us because it was senior day and we had beaten them earlier in the season at their place. So our last five games, were all against top 100 teams. We won one on the road and we lost two by one possession. I think those last five games helped us get stronger. We only won one of them but the competition helped us as we made our run. I think it was a blessing in disguise that we played those teams and didn’t win because our guys didn’t quit. They stayed strong and they stayed committed and I think that’s what fueled the run in the CAA tournament and the NCAA tournament.
SLAM: What will be the key for you guys to continue your run and possibly win the whole thing?
MJ: Focus on the team that we’re playing. Figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they match up against us. Then, come up with a game plan to beat that team. There’s potential for two games left but the only one you can anticipate is the next one so our focus is on how to win that next one.
We have a team saying that we want our guys to “play aggressive, confident, and loose,” and they’ve been able to do that.
[in reference to Kansas: Elite Eight game] Our guys have that internal toughness and it came out on a national stage the other night.
SLAM: Who would you predict will be the standout player for your team this weekend?
MJ: Obviously, Joey Rodriguez, our point guard leads the way. He’s pretty much the heart and soul of our team. He’s led us this season to where we are. But we have a lot of great players and that’s what makes a team. Jamie Skeen was the most valuable player in the Southwest Regional but Bradford Burgess is probably the best player on our team, while Joey’s the toughest. Then you have a lot of others guys who can step up and get the job done, like Brandon Rozzell. We’re not counting on just one guy, and that’s what makes our team great.
SLAM: What would a NCAA Tournament Championship mean for the VCU basketball program?
MJ: It would mean that we can compete with anyone in the country. It would be special for the city of Richmond; all of the VCU alum, who are passionate about basketball; and all of the people who have played for VCU, which has a rich tradition, dating back to the 70’s. It would be exciting for a lot of people and we’d be honored to be a part of it. I’m excited because I’ve been a coach for 17 years; I’ve played at Howard University, which during the time I played, we won a lot of games, winning our regular season championship. But for me, it would be the greatest moment of my coaching career. I’m honored to be a part of this program and a part of this university.
SLAM: What’s the main thing that you would stress to young people looking to follow in your footsteps?
MJ: Set goals and have a dream in mind and be committed to that dream. A lot of people talk about it but you have to be moving in that direction on a daily basis. It takes a lot of discipline and hard work but if you want it bad enough, then you’ll make it happen.