Jamie Skeen thrives with VCU
Jamie Skeen has been besieged by autograph seekers on campus, as school spirit is reaching a fever pitch at Virginia Commonwealth this week.
Teachers ask to pose for photos with him, too.
The star of the most famous game in VCU history has seen the number of his admirers grow after leading the Rams to an upset win over top-seeded Kansas in San Antonio and a trip to the Final Four.
It wasn't too long ago -- before Skeen's 26-point, 10-rebound performance Sunday made him a classroom celebrity -- that he left Wake Forest as an academic casualty. The eventual Most Outstanding Player of the Southwest Region decided to transfer out of the ACC school in December 2008, and at that point he was hardly considered a candidate for Most Likely to Succeed.
And those around the 6-foot-9 forward warned him against going to VCU. "They told me it was a dumb idea because they didn't get TV time and [the Colonial Athletic Association] was a small-time conference," Skeen said. "They had a lot of negative things to say about VCU, and look at us now. We're in the Final Four."
Skeen is tops on the team in scoring (15.4) and rebounding (7.4) in his senior season, and the Rams have captured the nation's attention with their improbable NCAA tournament run. Although Skeen has received recognition since being named North Carolina's Mr. Basketball as a high school junior, he has taken a circuitous route to get his current 15 minutes of fame.
Wake Forest declared Skeen ineligible for the fall semester of his junior season because of a violation of the school's academic policy. Skeen, who declined to discuss the nature of the violation, decided not to appeal for reinstatement and desired a change of scenery.
He had seen his numbers drop as a sophomore, and during the summer before that season, Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser had died of a heart attack. The two shared a close relationship. Dino Gaudio, the longtime assistant coach who took over for Prosser and had helped recruit Skeen, recalled how Prosser would always joke with Skeen about his dreads.
"Part facetiously there, something he would tell Jamie in practice, after practice and before: 'If you cut your hair, I think you'd play better,'" Gaudio said. "Skip would kiddingly ask, 'How long did it take you to get your hair like that? You could have shot how many more free throws?'"
After Prosser's passing, Skeen cut his hair as a tribute to the coach and has kept his hair short since then. "When guys saw him at the funeral, guys were like 'wow,'" said Gaudio, now an ESPN analyst.
Skeen said he took Prosser's death hard, but it also changed him. "It just let me think about life," he said. "Life is short. You have to take life more serious."
Many told Skeen it was a mistake to transfer to VCU, but he chose to head there anyway because it was farther from his native Charlotte and was a larger school where he felt he could fit in better academically and socially. He also noticed that Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders were on the team and developing into future NBA draft picks. Skeen stayed with the Rams even after Anthony Grant, the coach who had recruited him there, left for Alabama the offseason before he was to become eligible to play.
Under first-year head coach Shaka Smart, Skeen found his way. He averaged 8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in 2009-10 and has greatly improved on those numbers this season. A big man who leads the team with 40 blocked shots, Skeen also can hit the 3-pointer and shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc.
"He's the ultimate stretch-the-defense man," Gaudio said, noting that the threat of his outside shooting creates driving lanes for point guard Joey Rodriguez. "When he pops, he can shoot the 3."
After Sanders left for the NBA, Skeen felt he had to step forward. Before the UCLA game in the NIT Season Tip-Off in late November, he told the team he wanted the ball more and got it. Skeen scored 23 points in a win over the Bruins that ultimately benefited the Rams greatly on Selection Sunday.
"We got a lot of guys that like to shoot the ball, particularly from outside," Smart said. "Sometimes you have a choice between shooting the 3 or throwing it into Jamie or one of our other bigs. Our guys have done a great job since then of, even more so, making it a point of emphasis to give him the ball."
The Rams finished fourth in the CAA and didn't even bother watching the NCAA tournament selection show after losing to Old Dominion in the conference tournament championship game. Not knowing that his school's name had appeared on the television screen, Skeen didn't even immediately answer his phone, as he was busy eating on campus and had buffalo sauce all over his hands.
Two weeks later, Skeen held the game ball from the Kansas win after Smart tossed it to him in the postgame locker room. He had gone toe-to-toe with Jayhawks twin terrors Marcus and Markieff Morris, beating them outside by draining four 3-pointers and getting fouled on a fifth attempt from beyond the arc. He was 10-for-12 from the free throw line and grabbed four offensive rebounds. He led the team to a 71-61 win over the favored Jayhawks that set off wild celebrations in the streets of Richmond.
Without a safe place to keep the piece of the Final Four net that had been cut down after the game, Skeen stuck the strand in his baseball cap like a feather as the Rams returned home victorious. Next stop: Houston. "It's been crazy," Skeen said. "Everyone is so proud of us."
"I'm just so happy for him because he did go through some adversity earlier in his career," Smart said. "Really happy that it's finishing the right way."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.