Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
A year ago, coach Mike Rhoades set a challenge for his team to achieve in a year’s time — making the NCAA tournament.
“I told these guys this time last year that we can play in the NCAA tournament next year,” Rhoades said. “We really can, but all of you have to give yourself to the program, you got to be more coachable, you got to be more committed, we’ve got to work harder than we ever have.”
After falling in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinal to Rhode Island, Men’s Basketball left Brooklyn, New York, early and disappointed.
“It’s part of going through the season. It’s part of going through games,” Rhoades said. “We wanted to be there all weekend and try to win a conference tournament, and we wanted to win the league outright — regular season and tournament. It didn’t happen, didn’t go our way.”
Since the Rams did not win the conference tournament, their fate was held by the selection committee, and they had to wait and see if they got into the tournament. The third team announced, they did not have to wait long until VCU popped up on the bracket.
“I was excited, excited for all of us because we worked very hard to get to where we are right now,” sophomore forward Marcus Santos-Silva said. “It was a dream of mine since I was a kid to make the NCAA tournament. And it’s good because usually VCU gets put far away. This time, we get to stay close.”
In making the NCAA, the Black and Gold accomplished the challenge Rhoades set a year ago.
“It comes with a lot of hard work when nobody’s watching, no camera around, the bleachers aren’t pulled out,” Rhoades said. “And the guys bought into it, and they held each other accountable. You could see a lot of love among them. They were really excited for each other … I’m really proud of them.”
VCU’s out-of-conference resume — with a road win over Texas and a neutral court victory over Temple — allowed the Black and Gold to earn an at-large selection.
This selection is the fifth at-large selection for the Rams in the last seven years.
VCU will travel to Columbia, South Carolina to take on UCF in the East Region for the First Round of the NCAA Tournament.
Over the last seven NCAA Tournament appearances for the Rams, all of the First Round games were played on the West Coast or in the Midwest. The last time VCU played on the East Coast in the First Round was in 2009, when the Rams opened the tournament in Philadelphia.
Junior guard De’Riante Jenkins’ family spoke the Rams’ location into existence after the early exit from the A-10 tournament. His granddad called him after the loss to Rhode Island and said he thought it was a “blessing in disguise.”
“He saw the bracket and said, ‘We’re going to be playing in Columbia.’ He told me that right after the game,” Jenkins said. “And then when it came out and I saw us playing in Columbia, I just thought of him and I just thought of just how exciting it is for my family just to finally see me play at home.”
Columbia is an hour away from Jenkins’ hometown: Eutawville, South Carolina.
“[UCF is] very talented,” Rhoades said. “Coach [Johnny] Hawkins does a great job. They’ve had some big wins this year. They did really well all year long, and especially in their conference. And they’re a tough matchup with the pieces they have — they have some really talented players.”
The Knights are led by B.J. Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins and 7-foot-6-inch center Tacko Fall. Taylor averages 16 points, while Dawkins averages 15.2. The duo accounts for 31.2 of UCF’s average 72.1 points.
Fall has started all 31 games for the Knights this season and leads the team with a 75 percent shooting percentage. The Senegal native averages 10.9 points and 7.3 rebounds for UCF.
The Rams will face the Knights Friday at approximately 9:40 p.m. in Columbia, South Carolina.