When VCU won nine of its final 12 games of the 2020-21 season, it looked as if the Rams were poised to make a respectable run on college basketball's biggest stage.
That was until lingering effects of the pandemic nixed VCU's chances of recording its first NCAA Tournament win since 2016.
Positive COVID-19 tests forced the Rams to forfeit their meeting with Oregon, but VCU now has a chance to redeem itself in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when it faces Saint Mary's in the West Region on Friday in Albany, N.Y.
The 12th-seeded Rams (27-7) seemingly drew inspiration from that team that never got to showcase its talents in mid-March, as they also have hit their stride over the final weeks of the season. VCU has rattled off nine straight wins, including Sunday's 68-56 victory over Dayton in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament championship.
Adrian Baldwin Jr. led the Rams with 16 points and seven assists against the Flyers. Jalen DeLoach supplied 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Jamir Watkins contributed 13 and eight, respectively.
Now VCU turns its attention to the fifth-seeded Gaels (26-7), who have posted their fewest losses since the 2017-18 season.
"Everybody's good in the NCAA Tournament," Rams coach Mike Rhoades said. "For us to find a way to beat a very good NCAA Tournament team like Saint Mary's, you've got to go take it.
"They're super skilled. They have big guys. They have guys who can shoot it. They have some guards who can make plays. And they really guard, too. They're just a very fundamentally sound team, well-coached with some really good players."
Saint Mary's has also been playing well as of late -- winning five of its last seven games -- but is coming off an ugly 77-51 loss to Gonzaga on March 7 in the West Coast Conference title game.
Logan Johnson scored a game-high 20 points for the Gaels, who only shot 33.3 percent (18 of 54) from the field, got just seven points from the bench and finished with more turnovers (11) than assists (eight).
Despite the lackluster showing, Saint Mary's was still able to secure a spot as a No. 5 seed for the second straight season, becoming the first true mid-major to lock down a top-five seed in consecutive NCAA Tournaments since Saint Louis accomplished the feat in 2013-14.
"Our senior leadership is really good," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "We'll be all about team. There's nobody going off on their own selfish agenda. They won't do that. I can trust them to the highest level.
"They'll compete, and they'll be tough."
Saint Mary's has relied on a balanced attack all season, with Johnson leading the way with 14.7 points per game. Aidan Mahaney (14.5 ppg), Alex Ducas (12.5) and Mitchell Saxen (11.6) also boast scoring averages in double figures.
Baldwin has led the charge for VCU with 12.7 points and 5.9 assists per game.
The Rams and Gaels met in the first round of the NCAA Tournament back in 2017, with Saint Mary's advancing thanks to an 85-77 victory.
--Field Level Media