DAYTON, Ohio -- As VCU coach Shaka Smart sat down for his team's news conference following a 59-46 win over USC at the First Four, he posed a question of his own for the media.
"You guys think Jay Bilas watched that game?" he said.
The Rams heard the criticism from ESPN analysts and others ever since Sunday night. That, as a fourth-place team from the Colonial Athletic Association, they didn't deserve their at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Good thing they didn't gather as a team to watch the selection show, because they found themselves cast in the role of villain.
"As soon as we got selected, we were getting smashed," senior Ed Nixon said. "I mean, sheesh, they were really throwing some blows right there."
UAB was the other team in this First Four that nobody thought belonged. The Blazers tried to ignore that talk, which coach Mike Davis called heartbreaking, before they flamed out in an 18-point loss against Clemson on Tuesday night.
VCU took the opposite approach. They laughed at it. Embraced it, even. Used it as motivation while reminding each other about it all week.
"Just fuel to the fire," guard Rob Brandenberg said. "We came here to Dayton with one thing on our mind: to prove everybody wrong."
You won't hear anybody bashing the Rams after Wednesday's performance. You might hear some people predicting them to beat No. 6 seed Georgetown on Friday in Chicago.
That's because they approached USC the way they did the controversy over their inclusion: They went on the attack. Even on a night when they struggled with shooting and several starters got in foul trouble, they played like a team ready to reward the selection committee's faith.
The Trojans, with their six-and-a-half-man rotation, didn't want any part of VCU's run-and-gun style. The Rams missed so many shots in the first half -- they connected on just 28 percent -- that they couldn't apply their press. USC coach Kevin O'Neill beamed at the halftime score of 22-all and called it a "perfect tempo."
But Smart told his team at intermission that it would shoot better in the second half. The Rams finally started hitting 3-pointers -- six of them in the second half, compared to just three in the first 20 minutes -- and USC made the mistake of trying to match plays in transition.
VCU forced 15 turnovers, cashed them in for 19 points, and fouled out three Trojans starters. Meanwhile, a team that ranked 297th nationally in rebounding margin beat the much bigger Trojans 40-31 on the backboard.
"They came out and performed like they wanted it more," USC guard Jio Fontan said. "They got a couple more loose balls than we did. The pace of the game was more in their favor than it was ours."
The pace still fell far short of what Smart wanted, and few would have believed the Rams could win this game while scoring fewer than 60 points. But VCU showed some versatility and toughness, switching to a 2-3 zone late to contain dribble penetration. USC, which somehow escaped media criticism despite finishing its season 19-15, simply looked worn out down the stretch.
"We like to be the aggressors," guard Bradford Burgess said. "We play a different style of basketball that select few teams in this tournament play. No team likes to be sped up and pressed. We like to get you out of your comfort zone."
Now comes another interesting test against Georgetown, another team that wants to control the tempo. The Hoyas expect to get injured point guard Chris Wright back, but if he's not 100 percent they could labor against the press.
Doubt VCU now at your own risk. Ironically, the Rams were the only NCAA tournament team that UAB beat this season. But they are no UAB this March.
"We already proved we belong in the field," Smart said. "We proved that all year. What this proves is that we deserve to advance."