ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — VCU is back in the NCAA Tournament after becoming the first team to forfeit a game in the show.
Forgotten already? It was just two years ago! The Rams were an at-large team in the 68-team field in the 2021 event played solely in Indiana because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They were ready to play Oregon in the first round when a cluster of positive tests shut the team down and allowed the Ducks to advance.
Coach Mike Rhoades and guards Ace Baldwin and Jamir Watkins will return from that team on Friday, when the 12th-seeded Rams meet fifth-seeded Saint Mary’s in the West Region.
Fourth-seeded UConn will play 13th-seeded Iona and much-sought-after coach Rick Pitino in the other first-round game at MVP Arena in New York’s capital. In Denver, third-seeded Gonzaga will face No. 14 seed Grand Canyon and No. 6 seed TCU will take on play-in winner and No. 11 seed Arizona State on Friday.
VCU got an automatic bid to the tournament by beating Dayton for the Atlantic 10 Conference title.
“I feel like that served as a motivator for us the next year because our last game playing was losing the (A10) championship,” Watkins said Thursday, recalling the Rams’ 2021 season. “That kind of sat with us for the rest of the year and the rest of the summer just to get back to where we are now.”
Rhoades remembers 2021 clearly, despite claims he can’t remember two days ago.
After practicing for the Oregon game, the team went back to its hotel and took COVID-19 tests. There was one positive, so the team tested again and went back to the 16th floor for a meal. It turned out to be the last supper. The tests results showed a cluster of positives and the team was shut down.
While the news was crushing, Rhoades quoted his mother, Mary, and told his team to move on.
“We only lost the basketball game,” Rhoades said. “We lost the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, we’re the only team ever to get kicked out of the NCAA Tournament for something that was out of our control. But like I told our guys, we just missed an opportunity to play a basketball game. That’s it. A lot of people lost a lot of other things and a lot worse off than us.”
This year’s game may be a contrast of styles. VCU likes to play up-tempo. The Gaels, who have four Australians on the roster, play a patient style for coach Randy Bennett.
Bennett believes the teams are alike in some ways. They both play good defense and have their guards control the action.
“There’s no bums in this thing,” Bennett said. “If you got in this tournament, it’s hard to get in. There’s only 68 out of 350. It’s really hard to get in. We’re here, it’s next up, one at a time, meal to meal.”
The UConn-Iona game might be the headliner in Albany. It pairs a highly talented Big East school led by Danny Hurley against a tough, scrappy long-range shooting team led by the 70-year-old Pitino, who is being wooed by several schools with coaching vacancies.
“It’s anybody’s ballgame,” Pitino said. “We’ve got great respect for Connecticut. They’re not a four seed. I think we all know who have watched them, they could go to a Final Four and win a national championship. They’re so deep. They’re so talented. And we’re a pretty good team as well.”
Pitino grinned when asked about former President Barack Obama picking Iona to beat UConn in his bracket. He even told his team about it.
“I’ve always said that President Obama was one of the most intelligent presidents we’ve ever had, and this lends credence to that,” he said.
This is the first time since 2018 that Gonzaga comes into the tournament as something less than a No. 1 seed. The Bulldogs are a No. 3.
The main reason was an uncharacteristically slow start coach Mark Few anticipated. The Bulldogs lost three of their first eight games and their 75-game home winning streak ended.
One reason nobody at the Kennel panicked much: Of Gonzaga’s five regular-season losses, one came to Purdue, another to Texas and another to Baylor, teams that are seeded first, second and third, respectively, in this year’s event.
“I mean, I don’t know that it was Armageddon,” Few said of the early-season slump. “We were just turning the ball over too much, and that’s not usually indicative of our program. That was a real challenge for us.”
A home loss to Loyola Marymount in January was a head-scratcher, but the Zags have won 12 of 13 since. Drew Timme, the larger-than-life, mustachioed forward, is averaging 20.9 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Gonzaga made it to the national title game as a 1 seed in 2017 and 2021, but lost both times.
By the slimmest of margins, Arizona State sneaked into the tournament. Maybe thanks to a game-winning, 60-foot buzzer-beating shot from Desmond Cambridge Jr. that stunned Arizona in late February.
Once the 11th-seeded Sun Devils got in, they showed they belonged, routing Nevada 98-73 in a First Four game on Wednesday. The Sun Devils quickly jumped on a plane for the 1,200-mile excursion to Denver to face TCU.
That Arizona State made it into the tournament over teams such as Rutgers and Oklahoma State might have come down to Cambridge’s last-second heave. It gave the Sun Devils five quadrant-one wins. Their 5-6 record against quad-one opponents was better than Oklahoma State and Rutgers.
Led by coach Jamie Dixon, the Horned Frogs are making back-to-back tournament appearances for the first time since 1953.
AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this report.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.