There are moments in a college basketball career, lots of them. Some truly define momentous and some are humbling. Still others cannot be recognized until after the fact. But it's all those moments, good and bad, that shape the stories and the memories that hang on the tongues of fans and in the hearts of players and coaches.
Rob Brandenberg has seen them all, and he has one final year to make more. He begins his senior season next month 117 points from 1,000 on his career, and 28 wins shy of becoming (with Juvonte Reddic) VCUs alltime winningest player.
It was an auspicious debut, way back in November of 2010. Brandenberg's four fouls in seven minutes against UNCG was impressive in its, shall we say, activity.
"I really don't remember it much to be honest," he says now. "I know I was anxious and excited. I do remember Joey had 17 assists that game."
That Brandenberg remembers the success of a teammate is not surprising, however the night was also notable because Brandenberg wasn't supposed to play, at least not when September turned to October that year. The coaching staff had slated him to redshirt, ostensibly to bulk up. Brandenberg was listed at 175 pounds but we all know he was wearing his cement underwear to get to that number.
The forgotten part about redshirting is that it isn't declared until the end of each season, and Brandenberg wouldn't allow the coaches to wait long to change their course. He was so impressive in practice, grasped the concepts so quickly, that it was obvious VCU had a hidden gem. (Another forgotten fact: Brad Stevens at Butler offered Brandenberg a scholarship.)
Three days after that, well, hilarious debut, Brandenberg knocked down all four shots and scored eight points in a win over Winthrop. That was moment one.
However it was later in his freshman season that Brandenberg made his mark. Brandon Rozzell, who was leading the CAA in three-point shooting at the time, broke his wrist. Rozzell would have surgery and miss three weeks.
Brandenberg stepped in immediately and scored 22 points in a win over William & Mary, delivering the most points by a VCU freshman since Domonic Jones in 2000. Two games later he topped that by scoring 23 points in a win over Georgia State. It was the most points by a VCU freshman since Kendrick Warren scored 24 during the 1990-91 season. Brandenberg averaged 10.7 points and knocked down 13 three-pointers in nearly 25 minutes per contest in those eight games subbing for Rozzell.
There were more moments.
Brandenberg resumed his backup role and finished the regular season by scoring just eight points in the final six games leading up to the NCAA tournament, that rather notable 2011 NCAA tournament for VCU. Brandenberg notched eight points in the Rams' First Four win over Southern Cal, but his steal and open court, jacked-up three just before halftime served notice and was the catalyst in the VCU victory.
"I remember that one like it was yesterday. The stage, and we were in Dayton. It was my home state and I had a lot of family there," he says. "It was a slow game and that three gave us some momentum going into halftime."
We all know the moment from the Florida State game. The block that sent Robby Robinson into a full coronary and Mike Ellis into a teddy bear giggle. But it was so much more than that moment. Consider in that tremendous moment in VCU basketball history–VCU had to make one stop to advance to the Elite Freaking Eight–Brandenberg was on the floor. That's confidence in a freshman.
Somewhere buried in a notebook in my attic is a quote from Shaka. I had asked him about Rob's contributions in that game–four points, three rebounds, and two steals isn't going to jump off the page. Shaka pointed to the 20 minutes, and in a game like that you need those restorative minutes. It was something like that. I forgot the exact words but I'll never forget the sentiment. Winning teams have players who make winning plays, and they aren't always in the boxscore. It's what you are, a winner.
And I think that's the thing that sticks with me when I think of Rob Brandenberg.
He epitomized havoc before it became a phenomenon. The USC Three is the first I can remember in a game with high stakes where a VCU player made a havoc play. Brandenberg's bouncy, energetic, fun attitude is arresting. It makes you smile and watch. He may not have been the unsung hero of the Final Four run, but Brandenberg was the lava just below the surface.
In fact, Brandenberg is Smart’s player incarnate. He was lightly recruited from the Midwest, got an opportunity to shine and worked his way through bumps to the summit: Brandenberg has been a part of 84 victories in his career, the most ever for a VCU player after three seasons.
“He’s such a nice kid and a good kid,” reflects Smart, “that when he came in here as a freshman the initial thought was that we might redshirt him, and he was okay with it. Nowadays that’s rare. Then he played very well and there was no way we were redshirting him.”
But it wasn't all wine and roses.
It was a long sophomore year. Brandenberg was uneven and inconsistent, reaching double figures just once in January of that season. Even that game was specious–16 points in a blowout over a one-win Towson team.
"The coaches were always checking up on me, giving me good words of advice trying to get my confidence back," says Brandenberg. "It was a tough stretch but I learned from it and became a better player because of it."
Smart remembers vividly the struggles. The coach even tried meditating with his player to let the mental unlock the physical.
"He battled his sophomore year," says Smart. "He had a lot of what I'm talking about that we watch with Mel. He thought he was going to take the step from pretty good to great, and he missed the step of being good. That doesn't happen. You can't skip a step or two, and he stumbled. But last year he definitely took a step in the right direction. He was much more consistent. He again moments of up and down, but when he played well, we played well."
To wit: VCU was 15-0 last season when Brandenberg scored 11 or more points, and there were more of those moments. The poster child: Brandenberg hit all five threes he attempted in a November victory over 17th ranked Memphis at Atlantis, a signature victory for the Rams. He followed that by missing all five attempts in a loss to Duke.
Two more moments.
The moment for me, personally: at Xavier, when VCU rallied from 17 down in the second half to win. Here's what I wrote last year in the wrap up:
Sometimes the Gods, the Fates, a God, karma, or whatever it is that guides the world reaches its hand to Earth, touching terra firma in a manner that brings about harmony. Justice. Positivity. It’s a way to reinforce belief that the right thing can happen.
It's no coincidence, nor happenstance, that it was Brandenberg toeing the 15-foot line. You see, Brandenberg grew up in Cincinnati and went to high school at Gahanna in nearby Columbus.
As Shaka Smart noted postgame, Brandenberg was not recruited by the Cincinnati area A10 schools. Xavier is an A10 school located in Cincinnati. Brandenberg had something to show his home state. His mom and about 20 others were in attendance.
And 15 seconds later, with VCUs lead just two points, Brandenberg again stepped to the foul line.
It's fitting that Brandenberg knocked down those foul shots. It's fitting Brandenberg scored 18 points on 6-10 shooting and was the catalyst to the win. And it’s fitting that on the game’s final play, after Xavier’s Semaj Christon attempted a heavily-guarded three pointer, the rebound found Brandenberg.
This game ended, as if guided by those deities, in the hands of Rob Brandenberg. He came home and showed them all something.
Oh, there are moments, and Brandenberg is about to begin his fourth season of creating them. There is the possibility he will undertake a new challenge–point guard. Brandenberg played the point during his tour of Europe this summer and gained valuable experience at the position.
"When my name is called to run the team I feel very confident that I can and will do it," he says. "I just have to continue to get reps in practice and work at it. It's like anythig in life; you have to work at something to be great at it."
Brandenberg also looks to replace Darius Theus as the team's leader. That is perhaps more important than any on-court or statistical measure. He is confident.
"Me and Darius are two different leaders," says Brandenberg. "He was vocal and the heart and soul of the team but I pride myself on doing things the right way and setting a good
example my teammates can look up to. The way I lead is by example."
It all seems to fit for Brandenberg. His actions match his personality. He retains his incredible athleticism but it's tempered with a senior's maturity. His choice to lead by example fits. He is no phony. And to a man Brandenberg is described as a good kid, a nice kid. It makes you wonder how he turns on his rattlesnake when the game begins, how he gets that look in his eye when he turns the corner at the elbow and attacks both his man and the basket.
"Well that's one thing coach is always on me about," he says. "He says it's good to be that way off the court but it's a different mentality on the court. I've struggled with it in the past but I've gotten better at taking no prisoners and always attack, attack attack. It's a decision I have to constantly make."
Smart has said without fail that Brandenberg has had the best summer of any of the Rams–he's worked harder than ever before and it shows. There's a bounce in Brandenberg's step, but Smart also knows Brandenberg must step a little farther out of his comfort zone.
“We need Rob to assert himself and say ‘first of all this is my team,’” says Smart, “to take control and ownership of all the things that happen with this team on and off the court. We’re confident he’s ready to do that.”
There's a confidence to Brandenberg we haven't seen before. And if you're thinking "he's used the word confidence a lot" it's on purpose. One job of a coach is to help his players grow and develop on the court, but also as young men. Brandenberg is a good kid, a nice kid, a talented kid, who probably needed a shot of confidence. When you look back at Rob Brandenberg the young man, you can see he's grown immensely.
"Coach is defnitely one of the best people I've enountered in my life because of his values," says Brandenberg. "Those values on the basketbcall court translate to life very easily. I've learned to build from
adversity and be appreciative and show enthusiasm for what I'm doing. I can take those values forward through the rest of my life in whatever I do."
But don't think any of that mitigates what Brandenberg–and the entire team–wants to accomplish this season. There's a sour taste in their mouths.
"We have unfinished business," he says. "One of our goals is to win the A10 regular season and get out of first weekend of the tournament. A Big Ten team knocked us out in round of 32 the past two years. There's definitely unfinished business."
More moments, I presume. I can hardly wait.