NEW-LOOK RAMS UP TO THEIR OLD TRICKS

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VCU limited Wichita State to 31 percent shooting in the first half of Thursday's NCAA Tournament win over Wichita State.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Remember VCU? The darlings of March are back.

Led by charismatic 34-year-old Coach Shaka Smart, VCU scored the biggest upset of the first day of the NCAA Tournament with Thursday’s 62-59 defeat of fifth-seeded Wichita State at the Rose Garden.

A year removed from a stunning Final Four run, perhaps the most unlikely ever, VCU stole the show again. Last year doesn’t feel so long ago anymore. But while the uniforms are still black and gold and still read VCU on the front, these aren’t last year’s Rams. This team has been determined to leave its own mark. Thursday will go a long way towards that end.

Seeded 12th in the South Region, the Rams (29-6) toppled another single-digit seed, a feat they accomplished three times in 2011, but did it in their own way.

Last year’s squad featured an arsenal of 3-point bombardiers in Jamie Skeen, Ed Nixon, Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell. That team plowed through the field with offense. Thursday, as the Rams have done all year, VCU ground out an upset victory with unrelenting defense and timely shot making.

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Wichita State center Garrett Stutz will be a challenging matchup for VCU Thursday.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Wichita State has not played since it was upset by Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Tournament semifinals on March 3. Despite the 12-day layoff, the Shockers didn’t seem too worried about coming out rusty on Thursday against VCU.

“We’ve been practicing hard,” said WSU senior Garrett Stutz, who is averaging team highs of 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds. “We ended up calling some refs Saturday. We did an inter-squad scrimmage. The coaches haven’t let up, they haven’t taken it easy on us. Although it’s been a long time between games, I would expect the team to go about their business just like they’ve been doing.”

STUTZ RISES UP
One of the most significant differences between last year’s Wichita State squad and this season’s is the improved play of 7-foot center Garrett Stutz.

Stutz has practically doubled his production of 7.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per game last year to team-bests of 13.5 points and 8.0 boards. The big reason for Stutz’s emergence is simply opportunity. Prior to this season, the Kansas City native’s minutes were limited by his foul-prone nature. Stutz averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game last season.

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LAST SEASON COULD INFLUENCE THIS YEAR’S RAMS-SHOCKERS TILT

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Bradford Burgess scored 17 points in a 68-67 win over Wichita State last season.

PORTLAND, Ore. – The calendar says 2012, but 2011 will have a heavy influence on VCU’s NCAA Tournament second round match-up with Wichita State.

The Rams and Shockers were paired together during last season’s BracketBusters contest, won 68-67 by VCU. The victory likely sent the Rams to the NCAA Tournament, where they plowed through the field on the way to the Final Four. The Shockers, meanwhile, were relegated to the NIT, but pulled together and won championship over Alabama.

Although many of the stars from last year are gone, especially in VCU’s case, the players that do return have invaluable tournament experience.

“I think the fact that we do have several guys on our team that have played in six NCAA Tournament games and won five of them is something we can really draw on,” said VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart. “They know that there’s going to be some nerves early on. There just is when you’re playing in the NCAA Tournament. I think they can help our younger guys that haven’t been here.”

In addition to their familiarity with tournament play, these two teams are familiar with each other. For one, Wichita State hasn’t forgotten that 1-point defeat at the hands of VCU.

“It’s something that’s been in the back of our minds for a long time now,” Shockers’ center Garrett Stutz said. “They were a great team last year, and when they beat us, that kind of gave them momentum into their NCAA Tournament run. So, there’s definitely still some…I wouldn’t call it rivalry, but still some motivation for us.”

It’s not just motivation for Wichita State. The Shockers also have a game against VCU’s “Havoc” defense under their belt. In the past, VCU has played particularly well against teams that weren’t familiar or had little time to prepare for their system. Teams that press as much as VCU does are rare, giving opponents few chances to see swarming full court pressure. The Rams won’t have the element of surprise Thursday.

“That definitely helps because we played them last year,” said WSU senior Joe Ragland. “We played them and played them real tough.”

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