Shaka Smart says an NCAA bid is "nice", but the Rams are in Brooklyn to win a championship.

Shaka Smart says an NCAA bid is “nice”, but the Rams are in Brooklyn to win a championship.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – For VCU, the conference tournament has long functioned as a de facto play-in round for the NCAA Tournament as much as it was a chase for a championship. Not since 1985 have Rams fans been able to truly compartmentalize the two experiences.

Although there’s no such thing as an “automatic” at-large berth, not officially anyway, the Rams will be dancing this year. Every “bracketologist” under the sun – from Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm, to Joe Schmoe crunching brackets in his mom’s basement – has VCU safely seeded anywhere from a No. 6 to a No. 9. While the Rams’ results this weekend will greatly impact where VCU will be seeded, who it’ll play and where it will go, it won’t be a do-or-die scenario. This NCAA Tournament is one thing. That’s next week. This weekend in Brooklyn is all about chasing a title.

VCU’s move to the Atlantic 10 is actually one of the main reasons the Rams don’t have to grit their teeth through CBS’ tournament selection show this year. The A-10 has the seventh-highest RPI in the country and will likely receive anywhere from three to six bids. The Rams racked up six top-100 wins in league play. In all, VCU has built a NCAA resume on 10 top-100 wins, including three top 50 triumphs, and no “bad” losses.

“Well, I think that’s one of the advantages of the move to the Atlantic 10,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said Tuesday. “Let’s face it, if we were in the CAA this year we would’ve had to win the tournament. But yeah, we’re in a different situation now in that we are in a league that’s going to get multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens this weekend. But hey, we’re a competitive basketball team. We want to win, and it starts with [Saint Joe’s] on Friday.”

This is new territory for VCU, which was upset in the semifinals of the 2008 CAA Tournament and did not hear its name called on Selection Sunday. In 2011, Smart VCU battled their way to the CAA Championship Game before losing to Old Dominion. Afterwards, the Rams had to sit through a week of bubble talk and stomach gymnastics before learning they had earned an at-large bid. In 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2012, the Rams removed all doubt by winning the CAA Tournament crown. Had they not, it’s unclear if those teams would have been dancing in March. It’s likely that some of them, potentially all of them, would not have. For Smart, it’s a nice change of pace, but he still wants to hoist that trophy at center court of the Barclays Center Sunday.

“It’s different,” he said. “You don’t have that pressure that you have to win to get in [where] it’s win or go home. I’d be lying if I said that we would want that. I’m glad we are where we are. I think that’s a testament to our guys and the regular season they created. But again, we want to win the tournament. It’s a big goal of ours and we want to put ourselves in the best position moving forward after this weekend.”

Darius Theus led the Rams to the CAA Championship last March behind an MVP performance. Although he’s happy about the position VCU is in, he says it won’t impact the Rams’ attitude of focus in Brooklyn this weekend.

“Nah, same approach,” he said. “I think it’s a little different because in the CAA you were really fighting for it. But, it’s the same approach. We want this championship very bad no matter if we’re already in or not.”

Freshman Melvin Johnson is averaging 10.4 points per game in his last seven contests.

Freshman Melvin Johnson is averaging 10.4 points per game in his last seven contests.

One player to watch this weekend is freshman Melvin Johnson. The shifty, 6-foot-3 guard has been playing his best ball of the season of late.

Johnson is averaging 7.1 points per game this year, but in his last seven contests he’s scoring 10.4 points, including games of 18 and 13. His spike in scoring punch has coincided with the return of his outside jumper.

“Mel’s had an additional pop in his step for the last 3-4 weeks,” Smart said. “He’s really turned a corner as a freshman and he looks more clear-headed in terms of what he wants to do.”

A top 100 recruit out of St. Benedict’s High School (N.J.), Johnson was known for his shooting prowess. But he admits that adjusting to VCU’s style of play and the speed of the college game wore on his mind and his legs. Johnson opened the year by missing 14 of his first 16 three-pointers. In the interim, he proved he could still score in other ways, using a silky floater with deadly effectiveness. But he’s much more dangerous with another weapon in his arsenal. In the last eight games, Johnson is shooting 57 percent (12-of-21) from outside the arc.

Johnson believes the seeds of his recent success were planted at Franklin Street Gym, where the Rams practice.

“I feel like late January I started having some great practices,” Johnson said. “I noticed it within myself, just my talk, my energy, just the bounce in my step on the defensive end more than offense – I think [offense] comes a little more easy to me – comfortable in practice as a whole.”

But there’s also a physical factor. Johnson didn’t arrive on campus until late in the summer and missed much of the Rams’ offseason conditioning program. Considering the pace at which VCU plays, it was months before Johnson could get his legs under him.

“I don’t get as tired as quick,” he said. “My first wind out there isn’t in the first 30 seconds. It’s more like the first three minutes. That was actually a big factor. Up and down, I would be tired. Just being comfortable, getting my legs up under me, and now I’m able to hit the three-ball with a lot of confidence now knowing fatigue is not going to be a huge factor.”

In addition to his 3-point prowess, Johnson has begun to feel more comfortable on defense, the side of the ball for which the Rams are best known. Like most freshmen, Johnson struggled initially to appreciate the way defense is played at the college level – especially in Smart’s system. Once he began picking up on the Rams’ defensive concepts, it enabled Smart to leave him on the floor for longer stretches.

“Just not knowing what they really expected from me [at first],” Johnson said. “They may want you to come in and score, but they also want you to play defense at a very high level. That was a bit confusing because I wasn’t a great defender and they were so demanding of me, so then I just eventually bought in and said, I’ve got to do it.”