March 09, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) When VCU boarded a bus bound for New York on Wednesday many of the Rams felt like they were going to their home away from home.

In each of their first three seasons in the Atlantic 10, the Rams (22-9) have advanced to the championship game of the conference tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They won their first championship last season, winning four games in four days, and are seeded second this time around.

They will face either seventh-seeded Rhode Island or No. 10 Massachusetts in the quarterfinals on Friday.

For shooting guard Melvin Johnson, a native of the Bronx, it really is going home.

''It helps us a lot,'' the senior said earlier this week, noting that eight of the nine players in the Rams' regular rotation were part of last year's team. ''We understand what it takes and I'm comfortable there, not just because it's my hometown but our fans travel so well. We have a large fan base in New York and the guys are just happy to go back to Brooklyn. That's why the atmosphere here is just so fun right now. ... We just want to get to Brooklyn and have fun.''

That means steering clear of talk about where they stand on the NCAA Tournament bubble and focusing on their next opponent in the conference tournament.

''We block out all the other stuff,'' forward Mo Alie-Cox said. ''Everybody talks about it, but as a veteran guy on the team, ... it's something that we really don't focus on. The young guys, maybe they haven't been here so that's probably all they think about, but as older guys, it's just the usual talk around this time.''

Last season helped reinforce those priorities, Johnson said. The Rams arrived at the tournament as the No. 5 seed, having struggled late in the season.

''We were projected to be in the first four out heading to Brooklyn and wound up as a seven seed'' in the NCAA Tournament, said Johnson, the Rams' leading scorer. ''You can't control that. All you can control is winning basketball games.''

That's also the message first-year coach Will Wade will emphasize.

Wade was an assistant on Shaka Smart's staff when VCU made its improbable run from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, and he returned to Richmond to take over the program when Smart left for Texas last year.

Talking about their tournament prospects might be fun for fans, but Wade said it does nothing to help his team.

''None of that stuff matters if we don't win Friday,'' he said. ''We've got to put everything we have into winning Friday.''

---

Follow Hank on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hankkurzjr

Follow the AP's college basketball page: www.collegebasketball.ap.org

You May Like