March 07, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) In the final minute of VCU's regular-season-ending victory against George Mason, coach Will Wade had all five of his seniors on the floor. Then he took them out, one by one, to rousing appreciation from a sellout crowd.

These aren't the players that took the Rams to the Final Four in 2011, but they've continued winning since then.

The Rams (24-7) are the only team other than perennial championship contender Kansas to have won at least 24 games in each of the last 11 seasons, and they seem poised to advance to their seventh NCAA Tournament in a row.

Second-seeded VCU opens play in the Atlantic-10 Tournament in the quarterfinals on Friday night.

Mo Alie-Cox said VCU will travel to Pittsburgh for the conference tournament feeling some pressure, largely because the Rams have never failed to reach the title game since joining the league five years ago.

''It's a little bit of pressure because I've been a part of a lot of winning teams here,'' said Alie-Cox, the team's leading shot-blocker and No. 3 scorer. ''It's your senior year. You don't want it to be the year that you don't make it to the championship or make the (NCAA) tournament because people are going to start talking bad about you.''

There has been little negative to say about the Rams this season.

Picked to finish third in the preseason, the Rams led or were tied for first virtually all season before consecutive late-season road losses at Rhode Island and eventual league champion Dayton.

But tournament time has felt like a new season at VCU ever since Shaka Smart took them from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. Wade, then a VCU assistant, and his seniors have highlighted the change in tenor.

''Most definitely, just a heightened sense of urgency, just being way more urgent because we have a lot of young guys on the team,'' Alie-Cox said. ''They haven't been in this situation before. ... Of course, our goal is to make it to Sunday, but we know we have to take care of Friday, one game at a time before we think about Sunday.''

Wade put his team through situational drills this week and emphasized execution more than ever.

''I think the freshman found out ... I'm not messing around in tournament time,'' the coach said. ''We don't have time for mistakes. We don't have time for `my bads.' We don't have time for `I got you, coach.' No no, no.

''You've got to get it right. ... There's going to be a lot of different things that happen and we've got to be on point. The freshmen have to understand that and I think our older guys will help them understand that.''

The regular season has been a great training ground for what lies ahead, Alie-Cox said.

''In our conference, we've kind of played a lot of desperate teams because every team wants to beat us,'' he said. ''So we get everybody's best shot, so we've kind of gone through that already. At the end of the day, it's just controlling what we can control and working on what we need to work on.''

Wade, meanwhile, showed his appreciation to Alie-Cox, All-Atlantic-10 first-team guard JeQuan Lewis, forward Jordan Burgess, mercurial guard Doug Brooks and walk-on Torey Burston by taking them to dinner Monday night.

With 101 victories, they are the eighth consecutive class to have won at least 100 games.

''Usually when you're with the players and dinner ends, they're ready to get the heck out of there,'' Wade said. ''We ended up sitting there talking for 15, 20, 30 minutes. ... They were just sitting there trading stories.''


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