PITTSBURGH - The A-10 men's basketball tournament is well underway in Pittsburgh, but neither the VCU Rams nor the Richmond Spiders have taken the court yet at the PPG Paints Arena. By virtue of their 2nd and 3rd place seedings respectively, they earned byes into Friday night's quarterfinal round, and will only need to win twice to get to Sunday's title game.
However, that's not to say there isn't pressure on each team. VCU has made the A-10 title game each season they have been in the conference, and this year's senior class, the 8th straight to win 100 games in their careers, has no interest in breaking that tradition.
"I've been a part of a lot of winning teams here" said senior forward Mo Alie-Cox. "It's your senior year. You don't want to be the team that doesn't make the championship or that doesn't make it to the (NCAA) tournament."
"You just go out there and play hard for your teammates, your fans and everyone in the city."
The Spiders are feeling pressure themselves, but for a different reason. While VCU (RPI: 23) is reasonably assured of an NCAA at-large bid even if they do not win the A-10 title, Richmond (RPI: 83) does not have the same margin for error. Spider players are aware that their next loss could very well end their season.
"We didn't handle business in the non-conference (part of our season)" said Spiders senior forward T.J. Cline. "We don't have the luxury of losing a game and counting on an at-large (bid). That's our fault. We now have to man up and do what we need to do."
Both teams have come to rely on freshmen players, perhaps moreso than they might have thought at the beginning of the season. Samir Doughy and Malik Crowfield combined to make 19 starts for the Rams this year, and when healthy, those two plus De'Riante Jenkins average a combined 47 minutes per game of playing time.
Former Henrico standout De'Monte Buckingham was the A-10 Rookie of the Year with the Spiders, and he and fellow freshman Nick Sherod average over 17 points and 50 minutes per game for coach Chris Mooney. None of these players can really be considered freshmen any more, but each will be playing in this tournament for the first time.
"They've played in great venues" said Mooney. "Big arenas, small gyms. This is 30 games in. They've experienced a lot. I think they feel that they're ready for any challenge."
"I think the freshman found out I'm not messing around" said VCU head coach Will Wade. "We don't have time for mistakes, or 'my bad', or 'I got you, coach'. No, no, no, you'd better get it right."
"The freshman have to understand that".
Wade stressed the importance of the Rams getting off to a good start in their tournament games. VCU is 10-2 this year when leading at the first media time out of the first half. They are 8-4 when losing at that point and 6-1 when tied.
"When we're tied or winning (at that point of the game) our chances of winning increase dramatically" Wade said.
Mooney likewise has a key he feels is crucial to his team's success, and that's pushing the pace and flow of the game against bigger teams.
"I think we need to press" Mooney said. "I think we need to get ourselves moving up and down the court as much as we can. Even though we're smaller, we have guys who can run and move and make plays in the open court."
VCU's quarterfinal will tip off at 6pm Friday night against the winner of Thursday night's game between George Mason and Fordham. Richmond will play around 8:30 Friday night against the winner of George Washington and St. Louis on Thursday. If each wins, they will face off for a third time this season in Saturday's second semifinal.