VCU took out a newspaper ad earlier this week proclaiming: "Back to Bust Your Bracket."
The ad wasn't the idea of coach Shaka Smart or even his athletic department. But the Rams backed it up — at least for their opening round — by defeating No. 5 seed Wichita State 62-59 in the South Regional.
VCU (29-6), a 12th seed, advances to play fourth-seeded Indiana (26-8) in a third-round game Saturday at the Rose Garden. Louisville (27-9), the fourth seed in the West, will play fifth-seeded New Mexico (28-6) in the other game.
Smart seemed sort of embarrassed about the newspaper ad, but he's aware that expectations are raised this season for the Rams, who unexpectedly rode all the way to the Final Four last year.
Even President Barack Obama picked the Rams to win the first game against the Shockers.
"I think one of the motivational factors you always want to have going into any game is something to prove," said Smart, whose own profile also seems to rise with each win. "If you have something to prove, you're just going to play harder, you're going to be a little meaner, and you're going to be a little bit tougher out there.
"And we certainly had something to prove being a 12 seed."
If that wasn't enough, Smart and his staff put together a video of some of the pundits making their picks, with most of them going for Wichita State. It worked.
On Thursday night, the Rams' defense locked down the victory against the rallying Shockers (26-6). VCU pressured 7-foot Wichita State center Garrett Stutz, who missed a game-tying 3-pointer as time wound down.
The Rams led by as many as 13 in the second half, but Wichita State (26-6) closed to 54-53 on Stutz's layup with 5:39 left. Troy Daniels hit a 3-pointer for the Rams, and Joe Ragland answered with his own for the Shockers.
Toure Murry made a 3 that gave Wichita State the lead, but Bradford Burgess came back with his own to give the Rams a 60-59 edge. Darius Theus then tacked on a runner before Stutz's last-chance attempt was off.
"I was kind of the last option on top, and VCU read the play well," Stutz said. "By the time I got the ball I knew there wasn't enough time to go for a two. Couldn't have been more than 2 or 3 seconds left."
Burgess finished with 16 points, and Theus and Daniels had 10 points apiece for the Rams, who edged Drexel 59-56 in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament final to make it to the NCAAs.
Last year, VCU rolled to tournament victories over Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, making the Rams just the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. The run ended when they lost to Butler in Houston. Seniors Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen anchored that team.
Smart anticipates the comparisons, but shrugs them off.
"Honestly, we won 29 games already this year. Last year's team only won 28. We won our conference tournament. Last year's team lost in the conference championship game," Smart said. "So in a lot of ways we've done better that what last year's team did. Only difference is obviously last year's team went to the Final Four. And we've still got a long way to go before we can approach that."
The Rams will get their next test against the Hoosiers, who defeated New Mexico State 79-66. Jordan Hulls went on a second-half shooting spree and finished with 22 points for Indiana, which is back in the NCAA tournament after a five-year absence.
Wendell McKines led New Mexico State (26-10) with 15 points and nine rebounds.
In the earlier games at the Rose Garden, Kendall Williams scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half and New Mexico held off Long Beach State for a 75-68 win in the West Regional. Casper Ware, the Big West player of the year, finished with 17 points on 5-of-19 shooting for the 49ers (25-9)
The day started with Louisville advancing in the tournament for the first time since 2009 with a 69-62 victory over Davidson (25-8). Guard Peyton Siva, boosted by a big contingent of fans from his hometown of Seattle, had 17 points and six assists.
Jake Cohen had 24 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats, who were making their first tournament appearance since 2008, when Stephen Curry led the underdog Davidson to the regional finals.
The Cardinals, coming off a four-win-in-four-days run to the Big East tournament title, are making their sixth straight appearance in the NCAAs — but they haven't managed to get out of the opening round for the past two seasons.
"We just wanted to carry the Big East championship over to the NCAA, playing relaxed, playing loose," Louisville guard Chris Smith said. "We just came out with a lot of confidence."
Smith didn't mince words when it comes to the Cardinals' ultimate ambition.
"Our goal right now is to get to Phoenix, and after Phoenix, we want to get to New Orleans," he said. "Right now we just want to take it one game at a time and just win."