WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament is a homecoming for Rhode Island senior guard Stanford Robinson and sophomore guard Jeff Dowtin.
The regular-season champion and 25th-ranked Rams (23-6, 15-3) open play Friday at noon against VCU, which defeated Dayton 77-72 in the first of four games Thursday.
VCU has been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 2011, but will have to capture the Atlantic 10 title to reach the promised land this year.
VCU used a late 10-0 run to beat Dayton as forward Justin Tillman had 15 points and 10 rebounds in a game played about 120 miles from the VCU campus.
"You see all of that black and gold," VCU coach Mike Rhoades said of his fans who came to Washington. "It was pretty awesome. It is a great atmosphere to have. It was a team win, without a doubt. Even though we were down, they really believed they could win."
Rhode Island will have plenty of local fans as well Friday as Robinson is from nearby Landover, Md., and played at Paul VI High in Fairfax, Va. He began his college career at Indiana before transferring.
Dowtin, among the conference assists leaders, is from Upper Marlboro, Md., and played for St. John's College High in Washington. He was backcourt teammates with Anthony Cowan, the sophomore point guard for Maryland.
"One of the best conferences in the country," Dowtin said of the WCAC. "It helps you mature. Every night you are playing against some of the top talent. It helps you understand the college life, the competition, atmosphere, the different crowds."
The Rams won their first 13 conference games this season before losing three of the last five, including a one-point loss in the regular-season finale to No. 2 seed Davidson. Rhode Island lost big on Senior Night to No. 4 seed Saint Joseph's by 30 points.
"I did not have these guys emotionally ready to play on Senior Night and that's on me," Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley told reporters after that game. "It was an epically bad shooting performance."
Last season, Dowtin helped lead the Rams to an upset win over No. 6 seed Creighton in the NCAA Tournament before Rhode Island lost to Oregon.
This season, Dowtin has a team-high 160 assists and is averaging 9.2 points per game, fourth best on the team. Robinson is averaging 9.6 points and senior guard Jared Terrell is averaging a team-high 17.8, followed by all-around star and senior guard E.C. Matthews at 12.9.
Dowtin said high school prepared him for the Atlantic 10.
"It has a little bit of everything that gets you ready," he said.
Rhode Island beat VCU 81-68 on Feb. 2 in Richmond, Va., as Matthews scored 18 points and Terrell had 16.
Rhode Island had five players in double figures against Dayton. Besides Tillman, guard Jonathan Williams had14 points, guard De'Riante Jenkins and forward Sean Mobley 11 each and forward Isaac Vann 10.
Williams made a driving shot to give VCU a 72-70 lead with 58 seconds left to beat Dayton.
"I had a four-man on me, so I knew I could get past him," Williams said.