RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Fresh off a comeback win on Sunday, March 12 against the Dayton Flyers for the Atlantic 10 Championship, Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Men’s Basketball team is gearing up for the first round of the 2023 NCAA tournament.

The team secured the Atlantic 10’s best regular season record and conference title this year — and only lost seven games while doing so. Heading into their first round matchup against Saint Mary’s on Friday, the team is just 40 minutes of strong play away from being one step closer to a national championship.

“They don’t mess around here,” Head Coach Mike Rhoades said. “I just think the team as a whole, collectively, had that competitive spirit all year long.”

Throughout the season, eyes have been on the team’s offense and competitive energy.

“We’re playing to win. I believe in these guys, they believe in themselves,” Rhoades reflected. “Look where it’s gotten us.”

He explained how the team’s notable offensive success stemmed from a dedication to clarifying players’ roles and an emphasis on “team shots.” These “team shots” are part of the Rams’ philosophy, in which each score represents one for the whole team — regardless of which player made the shot.

“[Point guard “Ace” Baldwin] might shoot it, but he’s shooting for VCU,” said Rhoades. “So let’s get each other great team shots. Great team shots create great team scores.”

“Team scores” and team spirit have helped the Rams make it to the big dance for the first time since 2019. COVID-19 forced the team out of the tournament in 2021.

The only time the Rams made it to the Final Four in March Madness occurred during its locally-legendary run as an 11 seed in 2011. Back then, the team featured player Brandon Rozzell, who now serves the team in a leadership role.

“Brandon can definitely help with that just by talking to them about it,” Rhoades said. “All that stuff, it still comes back to VCU on the front of our jerseys.”

Forty critical minutes in Albany, N.Y. on Friday could be game-changing for the team, as well as Coach Rhoades and VCU as a whole.

“Pinch myself…” Rhoades exclaimed. “Great pride. Wow. That’s why you never take it for granted.”

Another notable element to this year’s tournament is the parallel it shares to the Rams’ Final Four experience in 2011, which was played in Houston, Texas. This year’s Final Four games are also set to take place in Houston. Therefore, this upcoming season has the potential to be a full circle moment for the team. Of course, there are still a few steps before the Final Four, but it all develops Friday, March 17 with VCU’s game against Saint Mary’s.