Brandenberg took lessons from Final Four loss to Butler

Jim Swing
Sports Editor

Rob Brandenberg received an offer from Butler in 2009, but found VCU more fitting. (Photo by Kyle LaFerriere)

Rob Brandenberg received an offer from Butler in 2009, but found VCU more fitting. (Photo by Kyle LaFerriere)

It was the easiest of questions that warranted the simplest of answers.

“How many times have you all gone back and watched the game from start to finish?” someone asked Wednesday afternoon, referencing VCU’s loss to Butler in the 2011 Final Four game.

The game was spoken of like a horror film or a popular YouTube video.

Senior point guard Darius Theus, VCU’s unquestioned leader who routinely takes charge in answering the bulk of questions, leaned forward and let loose the simplest of answers.

“None,” he said. “I know that coaching staff probably watched it but none of us have.”

Shortly after, guard Rob Brandenberg admitted he’d gone back and watched the game once that summer in the wake of VCU’s history making charge to the Final Four.

“I wanted to watch it to critique it and see what happened,” Brandenberg said. “Watch it from the outside.”

What Brandenberg ultimately saw was a freshman version of himself on college basketball’s biggest stage guarding an experienced senior guard that would be drafted to the NBA a little more than two months later.

Shelvin Mack was abusing every opposing player on the court that day, not just Brandenberg. Mack was a piping hot 8-of-11 shooting and 5-for-6 from 3-point range to lead Butler with 24 points.

Brandenberg played just seven minutes but struggled to hang with the more experienced Mack and missed both of his only two field goal attempts, which were both close to the basket.

“He got the best of us, but I learned from it,” Brandenberg said. “We learned from it.”

Besides all the comparisons about a pair of mid-majors and two young coaches, for Brandenberg there was a coincidence in Butler and VCU colliding in the Final Four.

Brandenberg was recruited by then-Butler assistant Micah Shrewsberry and took an unofficial visit to the school’s Indianapolis campus in 2009. He drew an offer from the Bulldogs after an AAU tournament in Cincinnati that year, but declined.

VCU was a better fit for Brandenberg’s style and quickness. Ironically, less than a year later he would face Butler for a chance to play in the national championship game.

Naturally, Brandenberg didn’t take his performance lightly.

“He took it hard,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said. “He took the Butler game hard.”

“Its the toughest loss that I ever took,” Brandenberg said. “Just because of the stage it was on and how amazing it was to get that far and how hard it was to get there.”

To pile on, less than a year later Brandenberg narrowly missed the game winning 3-pointer against Indiana in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. He was second on the team in scoring with 13 points against the Hoosiers, but missed the opportunity that could’ve gone to just about anyone.

Brandenberg’s resurgent nature is one that’s begun to define his college career.

Earlier this season from about mid-to-late November, Brandenberg hit a rough stretch shooting the ball. He missed 21 of his 30 shot attempts over four games, but responded by shooting 49 percent over his next 13 games.

During a two-game losing streak for VCU at the end of January, Brandenberg shot just 4-of-20, but raised his shooting percentage to 38 percent over the next seven games leading into Saturday’s rematch with Butler at the Siegel Center.

“This year he just really grabbed the season and ran with it,” Theus said.

Brandenberg’s yearly numbers are proof of his growth.

His minutes nearly doubled from freshman to sophomore season along with his points average. Brandenberg started 15 games in his second season while establishing himself as a valuable sixth man off the bench when he wasn’t in the starting lineup.

Now in his junior season, Brandenberg is playing his best basketball, averaging a career-best 10.7 points a game on 41 percent shooting.

Brandenberg’s scoring is invaluable to VCU, which is 14-0 this season when he scores 11 or more points and 30-2 in his career.

“He’s really grown,” Smart said. “Watching the tape reminded me of that because I saw him out there as a freshman really not knowing what he was doing.”

The crushing loss to Butler two years ago? It’s well in the past, although he’s squeezed as much knowledge and experience out of it as possible.

“Where I’m at right now, I don’t think Id be there now if I didn’t go through that,” Brandenberg said.

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