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Mar 19, 2024 3:48 pm

Upstart VCU takes aim at top seed Villanova in NIT opener

eric dixon villanova

No. 1 seed Villanova and VCU are turning the page after not hearing their names called during NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday.

The Wildcats (18-15) will host the Rams (22-13) in the opening round of the NIT on Wednesday night in Villanova, Pa.

The Wildcats ended up in the NIT for the second straight campaign after an up-and-down year.

They enjoyed early season marquee wins over North Carolina, Texas Tech and Creighton, but were inconsistent in Big East play and finished 10-10. They were eliminated from the Big East tournament quarterfinals in an overtime loss to Marquette.

All-Big East second-team selection Eric Dixon leads Villanova with 16.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Fifth-year senior Justin Moore is averaging 10.1 points per game in his first full season since playing a prominent role and sustaining an Achilles injury in the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament Final Four run in 2022.

While some high-major squads opted out of the NIT, Villanova coach Kyle Neptune noted that there weren’t any players on his team who expressed disinterest in the NIT.

“We have an opportunity to compete, so we want to try to compete and play the best we can possibly play,” Neptune told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’re always competing, we want to win every game we play.”

VCU also hopes to make the most of its postseason and make a run in the NIT. The Rams finished 11-7 in conference play. They ended the regular season by losing three straight games, but they bounced back in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

They went on a run as the No. 6 seed and reached the finals, where they fell, 57-51, to Duquesne.

Although the Rams fell short of the NCAA Tournament field after dancing last season, first-year coach Ryan Odom is pleased with the progress his team made after massive offseason roster turnover when former VCU coach Mike Rhoades was hired by Penn State.

VCU only had four returners from last year’s team, including Zeb Jackson, the only player who played more than 15 minutes per game in 2022-23. In a more prominent role, Jackson is averaging 11.6 points per game.

First-team All-Atlantic 10 guard Max Shulga, a Utah State transfer, leads the Rams with 14.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.

“The guys will be excited to compete for another championship,” Odom told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “VCU is a place that competes for championships. We obviously had an opportunity to do that. Not easy, with the turnover that we had, the coaching change, the new faces and all of that.

“This team willed its way into a championship situation with 40 minutes. It would’ve been a shame for it to end right now because they have more to give. They want to keep playing.”

–Field Level Media

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