RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Patience has been a necessary virtue for Jamie Skeen since he transferred from Wake Forest to Virginia Commonwealth University three years ago.
First, he had to sit out a season. Then there was a coaching change. Even when he got on the floor last season, the Rams still had Larry Sanders as their dominant low post player.
It wasn’t until Sanders left early for the NBA did the middle open up for the former North Carolina “Mr. Basketball.” Now the 6-foot-9, 240 pounder is a big reason the Rams are headed to the Final Four.
VCU (28-11) will play Butler (27-9) on Saturday in Houston.
“He’s had a phenomenal year for us and one that just keeps getting better and better,” Rams coach Shaka Smart said. “He became our go-to guy. He was going to get as many touches as he could handle, and now we’ve been able to go to him over and over and over again and he’s responded.”
Skeen has averaged 15.4 points and 7.4 rebounds for the Rams (28-11), and was probably never better than in their 71-61 shocker against Kansas in the Southwest Regional championship.
He was 4 for 7 on 3-pointers, scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
He’s still trying to absorb all that has happened. “Making it to the Final Four, that’s just a surreal feeling,” Skeen said Tuesday.
The Rams’ run through five schools from major conferences has made them a national curiosity, and the 5,000 or so fans that welcomed them home early Monday can’t stop praising them.
Skeen had little trouble Tuesday getting some information from his professor in a Sociology class — his major — so he wouldn’t be too far behind when he returns from Houston.
“Everybody kept interrupting me, giving me so much praise and pats on the back. It’s a nice feeling, but I’m ready to get to Houston so we can try to get these last two wins,” he said.
When it comes to basketball, no one interrupts Skeen when he has something to say.
Early in the season before the Rams played UCLA, Skeen stood up in the locker room and told his teammates he needed to get the ball more. He got it, too, scoring 23 points in an 89-85 victory.
He also lit a fire under teammate Bradford Burgess.
After a 3-5 February that left the Rams seemingly needing to win the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to get into the field of 68, Skeen noticed Burgess not hustling while the team was watching film.
“I don’t really speak out that much, but when something is really bothering me and I feel I need to stand up and say something, I step up and say it like a man should,” Skeen said.
And ever since, Burgess has been playing his best basketball of the season.
“It was the George Mason game,” Burgess recalled, “and we had turned the ball over and I didn’t run back on defense and try to chase the guy down to block the shot. I kind of just dropped my head and jogged back and he said, ‘That’s not the type of attitude that we need to win ballgames. That’s how we lose, That’s what’s going to get us beat.’ He just said, ‘Man, we’re going to need you to chase down the player and block shots like you used to do.’”
The incident created no hard feelings, Burgess said.
“It was the honest truth, and he was right,” he said.
Point guard Joey Rodriguez has come to think that Skeen can do just about anything.
When the Rams played Purdue in the tournament they led comfortably much of the way. But when the Boilermakers closed to within 13, Rodriguez looked for Skeen.
“The first thing I thought bringing the ball up was get it to Skeen because every time he gets the ball, I think he’s going to score,” he said. “He always makes the right decision.”
Skeen left Wake Forest because of academic issues and when he arrived at VCU then-coach Anthony Grant monitored his progress in the classroom.
Grant, whose Alabama team played Tuesday night the NIT semifinals, never got to use Skeen in a game. But he said Skeen still found a way to contribute.
“He came in and impacted practice on a daily basis. Great kid and obviously another guy that had a great high school career,” Grant said. “I think he was the player of the year in the state of North Carolina coming out of high school so we felt like getting him certainly would be a big asset.”
Smart has continued to make sure Skeen stays on the right track and sees the finished product.
“He’s come a long way, a long way,” Smart said. “He’s matured. He’s developed as a person. He’s done a really good job of putting himself in a position where he’s on track to graduate this spring. His attitude is one of humility and wanting to be coached and to get better.”
That humility, though, is challenged by his expectations for this weekend. Skeen continues to believe the Rams can win the national championship.
“It’s definitely doable,” he said. “But I felt like that when we played against USC.”