- Associated Press - Friday, April 1, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - When the coach who recruited him to VCU suddenly left, Rams guard Joey Rodriguez thought it might be time for him to go home, too.

When Shaka Smart took over the VCU program for Alabama-bound Anthony Grant, Rodriguez decided he was homesick and wanted to go back to Florida. He spent a summer there, then got the itch again. His father called Smart, asked if Rodriguez could return and the point guard was back. Two years later, he’s in the Final Four.

“Would we be here today without him?” Smart said. “I could make up some long answer. But no.”

Rodriguez’s decision to follow Grant out the door wasn’t all that unexpected in Smart’s eyes.

“He didn’t know us; there was no relationship, no trust,” the coach said.

Rodriguez decided he was going to enroll at Division II Rollins College near Orlando, play basketball and get his degree there.

His teammates kept in touch with him, though, and when he decided he wanted to return, he was welcomed back.

“My only question to him was, ‘Are you going to be in the circle with both feet?’” Smart said. “He said, ‘Coach, I will.’ And once he said that, he was back, as far as I was concerned.”


HOLDING IT TOGETHER: Butler fans may have noticed something different about Shawn Vanzant this season.

The Butler guard has been wearing a brace to protect his left shoulder, which is prone to separate thanks to his days as a high school football player. Vanzant never had surgery to repair the shoulder, and the longer he plays _ and more contact he takes _ the more often it separates.

He finally started wearing the brace this year.

“When it comes out of place, it don’t feel too good,” he said. “So I had to figure out something to keep it in place.”

The brace hasn’t limited his play at all. The senior is averaging 8.1 points and 3.2 rebounds for the Bulldogs, and led Butler in assists against both Pittsburgh and Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament.


KEEPING IT CLEAN: Kentucky swingman DeAndre Liggins will be charged with doing something few have been able to accomplish this season: stop Connecticut’s Kemba Walker.

Liggins has been saying for weeks he’d like another chance to slow down Walker, who torched Kentucky for 29 points when the two teams met in November, one of the few times this season Liggins failed to shut down an opponent.

He’s become one of the country’s best defenders, using his massive wingspan to swallow smaller players. The only thing that moves faster than his feet, however, may be his mouth.

Liggins is a notorious trash talker, a ploy he’s used for years to get in opponent’s heads. He went back and forth with North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes all game long in Kentucky’s win over the Tar Heels in the East regional final a week ago.

Yet Liggins says he’s going to keep to himself on Saturday night.

“I have the utmost respect for Kemba Walker,” Liggins said.

Besides, it might not help. Walker is used to defenders jawing at him. Not that he notices so much anymore.

“I can hear them, but that doesn’t mean I’m listening to them,” Walker said, “I’m just playing.”


FEARLESS NAPIER: Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier doesn’t play with the timidity of a freshman. Napier, at times, plays more like a senior, afraid of almost nothing, including his head coach.

“You’d have to line up one hell of a dragon with fire coming out before he would even flinch,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “My point is that he’s fearless. He’s got a heck of a future because he’s got that internal fortitude that a kid needs.”


ROZZELL FOR MAYOR: Shaka Smart refers to senior guard Brandon Rozzell as the mayor.

‘Everybody knows him, or knows of him and everybody likes him,” Smart explained.

That’s all fine with Rozzell, one of two Richmond natives on the VCU roster.

“It’s a nickname they’ve given me in the city of Richmond. It’s a great one, and I think it’s going to carry over for a long time,” said Rozzell, who is averaging 14 points in the NCAA tournament and has made 17 3-pointers in five games, including six against Georgetown.

“If I had the opportunity to run for mayor, I just might,” he said laughing.

Richmond’s real mayor, Dwight Jones, is expected to be in attendance on Saturday when the Rams meet Butler in the national semifinals, and Rozzell would love a chance to meet him.

“I hope he’s not upset with me that I’m coming for his job,” he said.


CHAMPIONSHIP INFLUENCE: Butler coach Brad Stevens has developed a relationship with a coach who knows a thing or two about winning championships in former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy. Dungy won a Super Bowl as a player and a coach and retired from the Colts after the 2008 season with a 148-79 career record with the Colts and Tampa Bay.

“I would say outside of the basketball X’s and O’s coaches, Tony Dungy has had the biggest influence as I have gotten to know him. I can’t say enough great things about him.”


AP Sports Writers Nancy Armour, Will Graves, Hank Kurz Jr., Eddie Pells, John Marshall and Kristie Rieken contributed to this report from Houston.



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