It feels like a big game each time VCU takes the court in recent weeks. In such a tightly-contested Atlantic 10 conference, every win matters. And every loss dampens the chance of receiving an NCAA tournament bid.
VCU is entering a week in which it’ll face two teams that it suffered back-to-back losses to last month, Richmond and Dayton. It starts with a rematch against the crosstown rival Spiders on Wednesday night — a game that’ll be played 10 minutes from VCU’s campus at the Robins Center.
The Rams were beat up in the first meeting, as the Spiders dominated on the boards and held VCU to 34 percent shooting on the night. It was somewhat of a lopsided victory; Richmond won by 15 points and outplayed VCU in nearly every aspect of the game.
Rams coach Mike Rhoades says his team is excited at the chance to redeem itself after being embarrassed on its home court on Jan. 17.
“We didn’t perform at the level that we needed to last time, and guys are disappointed in it,” Rhoades said. “We’ve got to do a great job of having great awareness in this game, of bringing the fight to it and really being ready to battle for 40 minutes at a high level. We’ve got to step our game up.”
Being an in-state matchup, both teams have their share of players who are from the area. For the Rams, Jonathan Williams, Mike’l Simms and Khris Lane are Richmond natives, while the Spiders have hometown players De’Monte Buckingham and Nick Sherod on their roster.
As Rhoades puts it, they all want to make it known that this is their town.
“Some of those guys they grew up with, played AAU with, played pickup with, worked out with,” said Rhoades. “That’s the fun thing about rivalries, especially if you’re involved in it for a long time or you’re from that area where that rivalry takes place, you have a little edge to you, without a doubt.”
The Spiders were in the midst of a five-game winning streak after defeating VCU last month. They saw that streak come to an end over the weekend, losing a close one at home to George Mason. But Rhoades notices the improvement in their play and sees similarities in his team with how the young players are constantly growing.
“Not only have they gotten themselves going, but they’ve been playing the way they want to play consistently,” he said. “A lot like us, they have a lot of young guys … so it’s never as consistent as you want it. But you just keep hammering away and hammering away, you get a little momentum and some good stuff happens.”
VCU (14-9, 6-4 Atlantic 10) and Richmond (8-14, 6-4 A-10) enter Wednesday night with identical records in the conference, which makes this an important game for both teams. St. Bonaventure is also 6-4 in conference play, while Duquesne and Saint Louis are each 6-5, respectively. Rhode Island, which has won 14 straight, is leading the pack with an 11-0 record in the A-10. Davidson currently sits in second place in the conference with an 8-3 record.
So there’s a logjam in the middle of the pack. The top-four seeds in the conference earn a bye week and have an easier route toward getting to an A-10 final. That adds a level of emphasis on these contests as we come down the stretch.
“We’re trying to get to the top of the league,” said Rhoades. “When you win the next one, you get closer. At times we’ve done that, at times we’ve let a couple slip away. But with the way the A-10 is, everybody beating each other up, if you win a couple games in a row it puts you in a great place. And that’s what we’re fighting for.”