On the surface a play-in game in the city of Dayton, Ohio doesn’t look like college basketball paradise. For the USC men’s basketball team, however, after a year of ups and downs, it might as well be.
Wednesday night, the Trojans take on Virginia Commonwealth of the Colonial Athletic Association in the inaugural “First Four” Round of the NCAA tournament. Although you can’t find the play-in game on your March Madness bracket, it’s a step USC (19-14, 10-8) is not taking lightly, considering a month ago there was no mention they’d even be playing basketball in the third week of March.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for every team we play and VCU being in the tournament as an at-large deserves our respect,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill. “They’re going to play up and down, they’re going to shoot threes, they’re going to play incredibly aggressive, they’re deep, they play hard. We know we are going to have to play a great game to win against anybody.”
VCU (23-11, 12-6) is making its third NCAA tournament appearance in the last five years. The Rams inclusion in this field of 68 teams marked a record for the CAA, which received three tournament bids for the first time in the history of the conference.
While the Rams at large-bid was received with tremendous criticism by the national media, second-year coach Shaka Smart led his team to notable wins against other tournament-bound teams this season like UCLA, George Mason, Wofford and Old Dominion.
Led by the shooting prowess of junior guard Bradford Burgess (14 points per game, 48.8 field goal percentage and 40.1 three-point percentage) and the veteran leadership of senior forward Jamie Skeen (15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.2 block per game) and senior guard Brandon Rozzell (11.3 points per game, 1.4 steals per game and 38.6 three-point percentage), VCU comes in to the University of Dayton Arena confident it can play its way into the second round.
Although the Rams head into the tournament having lost five of their last eight games, the team admits their confidence hasn’t been dented by the recent backlash caused by their at-large bid.
“If you’ve watched us all year, we have guys who get motivated by the criticism,” VCU coach Shaka Smart told ESPN’s Rece Davis. “We’re excited. If people doubt us, we will use that as motivation.”
While all sights seem set on tonight’s play-in game against the Rams, the Trojans believe their season is not meant to end in Dayton.
“We are not just happy to be here,” senior guard Donte Smith told the media after Tuesday’s practice. “We feel like we can make some noise in this tournament.”
And speaking of noise, O’Neill will be back on the bench to coach the team against VCU, after serving a one-game suspension over the weekend for his involvement in an altercation on Thursday night.
Wednesday’s tip-off is slated for 6 p.m. and can be found on truTV with Gus Johnson on the call.
The winner will represent the Southeast Region as the No. 11 seed and will head to Chicago to take on the No. 6-seeded Georgetown Hoyas on Friday night.