CHICAGO -- Virginia Commonwealth came into this tournament with a chip on its shoulder, ready to prove to the world, or at least the worldwide leader, that it belonged in this field and could play with the big boys.
So far, so good, but now comes the biggest of the boys the Rams have faced all year. Naturally, they know they are up to the challenge.
Purdue will be the highest-ranked team the Rams have faced all season. Check that. The Boilermakers are the only squad that VCU will have faced that is currently in the rankings.
The Rams will also have to deal with 6-foot-10 All-American JaJuan Johnson.
Johnson is a matchup issue for nearly everyone Purdue faces (Ohio State being the lone exception). On Saturday, 24 hours before tipoff, VCU coach Shaka Smart was still trying to figure out how to go after him, most likely opting for a bullpen by committee.
"We're going to use our entire front court to block him at times," Smart said. "Different people will take turns on Johnson. Jamie Skeen is going to find his way onto him at some point, whether it's to start the game or later in the game."
Smart also suggested that he may go deep into his bench.
"We've got a lot of big guys that don't play a lot of minutes, but when they do go in there, they should have a great deal of energy," he said.
But, he also acknowledged that Johnson and guard E'Twaun Moore are going to get theirs.
"You're not going to shut [Johnson] down, neither him, nor Moore," Smart admitted. "You have to contain them, hold them under their average, and you've got to do a phenomenal job on the supporting cast."
That starts with Boilermakers point guard Lewis Jackson. Smart is very concerned about him, with good reason. When Jackson plays well, Purdue's offense can run you over like a train. "Jackson can't be up to 15, 20 points," Smart said. "In the games where he's had terrific offensive games, you know, teams have been in trouble. We can't let him go nutty."
That means that the game could come down to a battle of the two smallest guys on the floor, the 5-9 Jackson and his VCU counterpart Joey Rodriguez, who is listed at 5-10. Both teams must measure their guys in heels instead of gym shoes.
Jackson may have the early edge in scouting. There is some history between the two. They both played in a high school tournament four years ago in Fort Myers, Fla. Rodriguez impressed Jackson then, and Jackson hasn't forgotten him.
Jackson tells the story. "My junior year in high school, we got to play in the Fort Myers Classic, and [Rodriguez] was there with his teammate Nick Calathes. And I remember everybody talking about Calathes and how good he was, but I got to watch him, really liked his game. Once I found out what college he went to with Eric Maynor, he was on TV a couple times. So every time he played I was just checking in. I always kind of watched his game and just seen how he was doing."
Smart has a scouting advantage of his own, and he got that advantage from none other than Purdue coach Matt Painter.
One of the things about playing in the NCAA tournament is that you often don't get a lot of time to prepare, and you may be facing a style of offense you haven't seen before. VCU hasn't seen the motion offense Purdue runs all year, or certainly not one executed as well.
However, Smart attended a coaching clinic last summer and sat in the front row while Painter explained the intricacies of running his motion offense.
But, "I don't have my notes with me. They're back at the office. I asked someone to fax them to me," Smart said.
Whether the notes arrive or not, and whether they are much help, one thing is for sure -- VCU will be ready, chip firmly planted on its shoulder.
"[The chip] is always there for us," Rodriguez said. "We had a goal before the season to get to the Sweet 16, and it's our last game to get there. I think we can do it. We just got to bring our 'A' game."
Maybe then, the world will believe they belong.