PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Because of VCU’s unexpected ride in the NCAA tournament last season, the Rams are a known commodity this year — so much so that President Barack Obama has them beating Wichita State to open the Portland Regional.
But that doesn’t faze the Shockers.
“I’m pretty sure he’s going off of experience. They’re a team that was in the final Four last year,” said Wichita State guard Joe Ragland. “I’m sure he feels they can make the same kind of run and it’s up to us to stop that.”
The Rams (28-6) beat Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas in the tournament last year, becoming just the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. The run ended when they lost 62-70 to Butler in Houston.
This season Virginia Commonwealth is a No. 12 seed, having earned a second straight berth by edging Drexel 59-56 in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.
The Rams open the tournament with a six-game winning streak and plenty of expectations, given what they accomplished last year. They face the Shockers today at 6:15 p.m.
“I think the fact that we do have several guys on our team that have played in six NCAA tournament games, and won five of them, is something that they can draw on,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “There are going to be some nerves early on — there just are when you’re playing an NCAA tournament. But I think they (the older players) can help the younger guys that haven’t been here.
“They also have winning experience to draw on when the game gets close, when they face a little adversity. They know what it takes to battle back and find a way to win.”
It is the 11th time VCU has been to the NCAA tournament. Wichita State, which won the National Invitation Tournament last year, hasn’t been in the NCAA tourney since 2006, when it advanced to the regional semifinals.
In their only previous meeting, VCU beat the Shockers 68-67 in Wichita last season. Senior Joey Rodriquez had 15 points and 11 rebounds in the victory, while Jamie Skeen, also departed this season, had 11 points and 12 rebounds. Two late free throws were the difference.
Ragland says Wichita State really can’t take too much from that game when the two teams meet again today.
“They had a lot of offensive fire power last year with Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen and all those guys who could really put points on the board,” Ragland said. “But they didn’t really pressure us the way this team will, I believe, so it’s two different teams in my opinion.”
Wichita State, a fifth seed, was ranked No. 18 in the final AP poll. The Shockers (27-5) won the regular-season title in the Missouri Valley Conference, but lost to Illinois State in a conference tourney semifinal game.
The team is led by 7-foot center Garrett Stutz, who is averaging 13.5 points and eight rebounds. He says last season’s 1-point loss to the Rams is motivation.
“It’s something that’s been in the back of our minds for a long time now,” he said. “They were a great team last year, and when they beat us, that kind of gave them momentum into their NCAA tournament round.”