VCU heads to Oklahoma City for NCAA despite A-10 loss

Fred Jeter | 3/17/2016, 11:25 p.m.
If you’re among the thousands of passionate Virginia Commonwealth University basketball fans, you’ve become accustomed to this time of year ...
Virginia Commonwealth University guard Jonathan Williams plays smothering defense against St. Joseph’s University’s DeAndre Bembry in the second half of Sunday’s Atlantic 10 Tournament championship game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

If you’re among the thousands of passionate Virginia Commonwealth University basketball fans, you’ve become accustomed to this time of year scrambling for last minute flight reservations.

For the third straight year, the Rams are headed to the NCAA. So Rams fans who want to cheer on the team in person will be putting up considerable time, effort and expense.

After losing to St. Joseph’s University 87-74 in the Atlantic 10 Tournament finale last Sunday in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Rams are headed to Oklahoma City, 1,293 miles from Richmond.

Coach Will Wade’s 24-10 Rams are seeded No. 10 in the NCAA’s West Region and will face No. 7 Oregon State University, featuring Gary Payton II, on Friday, March 18. Tipoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m., with the game slated to be televised on TNT.

The winner of the Rams-Beavers match-up likely will face No. 2 Oklahoma, also at the 18,023-seat Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

Oklahoma City is practically a VCU “home game’ in comparison to previous NCAA destinations.

In 2014, Richmonders trekked to San Diego to meet Stephen F. Austin University of Texas. Last year, the Rams met Ohio State University in Portland, Ore. Both Pacific Coast excursions resulted in overtime losses for the Rams.

Travel-happy Rams fans like to think they can dominate any facility within a reasonable distance, such as Brooklyn’s Barclays Center where VCU is 10-3 during the past four seasons in Atlantic 10 Conference play.

The nearest NCAA regional competition this year is in Raleigh, N.C., where Rams fans would have decorated the facility in black and gold.

Led by All-Tournament senior Korey Billbury, VCU routed the University of Massachusetts and Davidson College at the Barclays Center before falling to St. Joseph’s in the final game that was televised on CBS.

VCU is joined by St. Joseph’s University and the University of Dayton in the NCAA field.

Leading scorer Milton Johnson (17.4 points per game), also a senior, twisted his ankle in the quarterfinals and wasn’t his usual All-A10 self.

Johnson had nine points against Davidson, five against St. Joseph’s and was a combined 2-for-9 on 3-pointers in the final two games.

This marks the Rams’ sixth straight trip to “The Dance,” and the 15th time in school history, starting in 1980 when Coach J.D. Barnett was directing VCU fortunes and John Marshall High alumnus Ed Sherod was the playmaker.

VCU’s best showing was in 2011, when the Rams marched to the Final Four in Houston, the same location as this year’s Final Four. There is a second coincidence.

The Rams launched the 2011 NCAA quest with a victory over a big-name Pac 12 team, Southern California. Rams fans are hoping for similar results Friday when the team plays another Pac 12 powerhouse, Oregon State.

OSU’s All-Pac 12 star is 6-foot-2 Payton, son of OSU alumnus and longtime NBA standout Gary Payton Sr., who played professionally from 1990 to 2007. Known as “The Glove” for his famous defense, Payton Sr. was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.