"Before this year started, I was telling Coach Smart, 'Hey Coach, we don't need to press as much. Did you see Butler and how they just guard in the half court?' It's pretty funny now that we're playing them."
Credit Rodriguez, too, for morphing into the leader Smart envisioned. Without Rodriguez's guidance on and off the court, VCU wouldn't be preparing for Saturday's national semifinal in Houston against Butler.
"He has so much basketball IQ, it's insane," Rams center D.J. Haley said of Rodriguez. "It seems like he always knows where everybody is on the court and off the court. He always makes sure you're doing OK. He's a great example of a leader."
Voted third-team All-Colonial Athletic Association, Rodriguez is scoring less and shooting a much lower percentage than last season. But numbers don't do him justice.
He understands the offense completely — "If you put me at the five spot, I know exactly what the bigs are doing," Rodriguez said.
He defends as effectively as an undersized — VCU generously lists Rodriguez at 5-foot-10 — guard can, orchestrates the offense and channels his head coach, himself a former point guard.
"The best thing about him is unbelievable toughness, mental and physical toughness," Smart said. "I've been fortunate, I've had a chance to be around a lot of great players, a lot of talented players, but I don't think that I've coached a guy as tough as Joey and mentally strong as Joey.
"So no matter what the situation is, he always believes in himself and his teammates. And he's very good at coming up with a way to win or to overcome the situation."
Case in point the Southwest Regional.
With 7.9 seconds remaining in overtime against Florida State in the semifinals, and with VCU out of timeouts, Rodriguez calmly waited for Bradford Burgess to break free on an inbounds play. Rodriguez, the trigger man, timed the 5-second limit perfectly and passed to Burgess for the winning layup.
Two days later in the final against Kansas, Rodriguez air-balled a 3-pointer and had a layup blocked on consecutive second-half possessions. But as the Jayhawks drew within five points late, Rodriguez swished a 3-pointer and assisted on two Burgess scores.
"I'm not worried about anything else other than leading," Rodriguez said, "and when I do that, we're at our best."
But like most entering his senior season, Rodriguez fancied himself scoring more – he averaged 12.9 points last season.
"I think that's natural for anybody," he said. "I went into the year with high hopes."
Those hopes have been realized in ways Rodriguez never imagined. He's scoring less (10.5 points per game), and his shooting percentage has declined from last season's 43.5 to 34.9, but his team is two victories shy of the national championship.
No Ram has relished the resulting attention more. Rodriguez is a regular on the interview podium and gladly sits for smaller-group sessions as well.
"I'm lovin' it," he said. "It's fun. I'm just livin' it and having a good time."
With 38 assists and 10 turnovers in five NCAA tournament games, Rodriguez has been the consummate distributor, never better than an 11-assist, no-turnover performance in a 94-76 rout of Purdue. This against a defense that had been allowing 62 points per game.
"I thought he was the difference in the game," Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said during his postgame news conference. "He ran the team. He found shooters. He found guys diving. He was persistent, very determined. And we just had a difficult time getting him corralled and getting him stopped."
Rodriguez also scored 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting to complete what Smart rated a near-perfect game.
"He did a miss a shot or two, so I guess it wasn't perfect," Smart said. "But it was close. It was very, very close. … To go get 11 assists, you have to take some chances, and you have put yourself in a position where there's two guys on you, and make some tough passes flawlessly. …
"Joey, like a lot of small guards, he's always had a chip on his shoulder, always had something to prove. So he kind of sets the tone for our team in that regard. He had 22 points and 17 assists against UNC Greensboro in our season-opener here, but that was our season opener at home. This is the NCAA tournament.
"Big players step up in big moments, and nobody's been bigger than Joey. Those are the teams that advance this time of year, teams with guards that can pull their teams forward, pulling the best out of guys, and that's what Joey has done for us."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP