VCU would be smart to root for UCLA

NEW YORK -- Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart and the rest of his players fully understand how the NCAA tourney at-large selection process works.

They’ve got to root hard for UCLA to have a good season.

The Rams beat the Bruins 89-85 Friday for third place in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden. But for this win to matter much in March, the Bruins have to be a player in the Pac-10. Clearly, VCU’s win at Wake Forest to get to New York may not mean as much as the Demon Deacons have already lost two other home games (Winthrop and Stetson) and appear headed for the bottom of the ACC.

But Smart said he is convinced the Rams will get credit for the road and neutral-court wins, regardless of what happens with those teams this season. VCU also plays at South Florida (Big East), at A-10 contender Richmond and at UAB (Conference USA). South Florida is expected to be in the bottom four in the Big East and the Blazers are an upper-half C-USA team but not a serious title contender. Still, Smart is banking on brownie points with the selection committee for road wins if the Rams are fortunate enough to pull them off.

This at-large talk is real since the Colonial Athletic Association is expected to be highly competitive with Old Dominion just winning the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas with a win over Xavier on Monday. Northeastern, George Mason and James Madison are also expected to be in the mix.

The Rams proved in New York that they are resilient, balanced and fast. The ability to get shots from point guard Joey Rodriguez and wing Bradford Burgess, as well as from Wake Forest transfer Jamie Skeen inside, makes the Rams tough to defend.

“Everyone thought we would be the worst team here,’’ said Skeen, who had 23 points and nine rebounds against the Bruins. “But we’ve proved them wrong. Me and Joey are the two oldest players and we’re going to lead this team as far as possible.’’

Meanwhile, UCLA leaves New York 0-2 and now has a road date with Kansas on Thursday.

Everyone on the coaching staff and with the team agrees the Bruins are better than a year ago when they lost four neutral-site games in Anaheim, including going 0-3 at the 76 Classic. UCLA has now lost five straight regular-season neutral-site games. Still, there is much more hope in the Bruins’ locker room.

“We just have to get better on defense,’’ said UCLA sophomore forward Reeves Nelson. “We’re starting to play a lot of good teams. We also have to get off on better starts. We got down 8-0 right away [against VCU]. We’re better than last year. And these games will help us. If we can go to Kansas and win, that would give us great momentum going into the Pac-10.’’

The Bruins do have one other marquee nonconference game prior to Pac-10 play, against projected NCAA team BYU at the John Wooden Classic in Anaheim. But if UCLA loses to Kansas -- coupled with the losses to Villanova and VCU here in New York -- then it will put even more pressure on beating BYU so that their entire at-large profile isn’t based solely on how they fare in a still-struggling Pac-10.