PORTLAND, Ore. — Before his team's first NCAA tournament game since last year's stunning run from the First Four to the Final Four, VCU coach Shaka Smart wanted to make sure the Rams were mentally ready to make another push.
Smart handed each player a laminated copy of VCU's NCAA tournament bracket with the 12th-seeded Rams already meeting their preseason goal of advancing to the Sweet 16. Then he had each player sign a bigger version on the locker room wall, an exercise meant to help the players visualize their goal and commit to expending maximum effort to achieve it.
"When they signed, they're saying, 'I'm all in. I'm going to do everything it takes to accomplish this goal,'" Smart said.
VCU indeed lived up to that pledge in an impressive 62-59 upset victory over fifth-seeded Wichita State. The Rams stifled a normally efficient Shockers' offense with their signature "havoc" defense, holding Wichita State to 38 percent shooting and 20 points below its season scoring average.
The bracket on the wall is just one of many motivational tactics Smart has used during his highly successful three-year run at VCU.
Last season, he lit the February page of a calendar on fire after the Rams skidded into March on a slump. Then this fall, he handed out wallet-sized cards that read "It's over" on one side and "Own today" on the other to remind his players not to be satisfied with what they accomplished a year ago.
Smart first introduced his latest idea during the CAA tournament when he had players sign a bracket on the locker room wall that had the Rams winning that championship. They of course fulfilled that goal, beating first-place Drexel in the title game to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"Signing the bracket is very important to us," sophomore forward Juvonte Reddic said. "Every guy signs it, so it's pretty much like signing a contract saying you're going to give it your all."