- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2011

SAN ANTONIO | Late Sunday night, Joey Rodriguez sat on a plane from Chicago to Richmond, Va. He couldn’t sleep. Rapper Wiz Khalifa’s anthem “The Race” pounded through his headphones. The song turned Rodriguez’s thoughts from the win over Purdue that propelled Virginia Commonwealth University into the Sweet 16 to one choice that changed the course of his life.

All of this - VCU’s three straight wins in the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed, the national attention that drew 163 media requests this week, Friday’s matchup with Florida State in the Alamodome - almost never happened.

Two years ago, Rodriguez decided to leave. The team’s chatty point guard - he bounces up and down when talking, barely able to contain the energy - wanted to be closer to his Merritt Island, Fla., home. And he didn’t want any part of the transition to new coach Shaka Smart after Anthony Grant took the Alabama job.

“Once he left, I was ready to go,” said Rodriguez, who averages 10.7 points and five assists per game. “My family wanted me around because they saw how down I was.”

In April 2009, Rodriguez announced he’d transfer to Rollins College, a Division II school in Winter Park, Fla. But he never enrolled. Instead, he watched VCU’s individual workouts.

“He came to watch and look at us and try to figure us out,” Smart said.

With no point guards on the roster, Smart started recruiting one. Rodriguez noticed. A recruiting push from teammates Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell followed. Nixon scoffed at the thought of his friend playing Divison II basketball.

“At the end of the day, he really didn’t want to leave,” Nixon said. “He was just upset about losing a close coach and not knowing what would come next. Everybody had thoughts of transferring. But our bond was really strong.”

The change in coaching style from Grant to Smart threw Rodriguez off. Grant’s demeanor had Rodriguez regularly second-guessing his on-court decisions. Smart is more hands-off, and Rodriguez feels more freedom, more trust.

Second thoughts came quickly to Rodriguez. Indecision is a trait, he concedes. This wasn’t an exception. Finally, he junked plans to enroll for the summer session at Rollins College and asked Smart for another chance.

Smart accepted him back on one condition: He had to have both feet in the circle. Rodriguez said yes.

“Things would be a lot different if I hadn’t made that decision,” Rodriguez said. “Things have been gravy ever since.”

Rodriguez surveyed the locker room Thursday afternoon. Television cameras, piles of boxed lunches, reporters wielding tape recorders and microphones competing for space with players texting and snapping photos with cellphones. This was more media attention than VCU would get in a full season. Insane, he said.

Rodriguez is only 5-foot-10 and looks more like a manager than the maestro of an offense scoring 71.9 points per game. But he’s directed wins over Florida State, Georgetown and Purdue in the NCAA tournament, while becoming VCU’s all-time leader in games and minutes.

“He’s the undisputed leader on the team,” assistant coach Mike Jones said. “He’s our toughest player, too. When the game is on the line, you know you can count on him.”

After the flight from Chicago to Richmond, Rodriguez pulled Smart aside told him how thankful he is for welcoming him back two years ago. And no one could imagine the team without Rodriguez.

“You never know,” Nixon said. “He’s done such a great job this year, that you just don’t know. The whole chemistry of the team could be totally different.”

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