After losing on the first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament last year, Ohio State will be hoping they'll have a longer stay in this year's edition. To make sure their stay in Portland lasts the weekend, the Buckeyes will have to take down the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, who qualified for the NCAA Tournament by taking down Dayton on Selection Sunday to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Ohio State comes in with more questions than answers right now, and their performance in Chicago at the Big Ten Tournament didn't do much to inspire confidence heading into the NCAA Tournament. Still, Ohio State has freshman D'Angelo Russell, who many of the faithful in Buckeye Nation are hoping can put the team on his back and lead the scarlet and gray on a lengthy tournament run before he likely declares for the NBA Draft.
Last Thursday night at the United Center, Ohio State was able to take down Minnesota for a second time this season, but they didn't fare nearly as well when they took on Michigan State in the Quarterfinals. The Buckeyes had yet another slow start to a game, which put them in a hole they didn't have enough time and energy to dig out of. For the second time in just over a month, Denzel Valentine hurt the Buckeyes. While in East Lansing, Valentine hit a game-winning three-pointer, in Chicago on Friday night, it was Valentine's all-around performance that did in the Buckeyes.
This will mark the fourth straight NCAA Tournament for the senior class of Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, and Trey McDonald. Thompson is the leading returner scorer among the four seniors, having registered 64 points during his NCAA Tournament career. After having reached a Final Four and Elite Eight in their first two years, the seniors will be hoping to put the disappointment of last year's opening loss to Dayton behind them to finish their Ohio State careers on a high note.
This afternoon's game will mark the first time in which Ohio State and VCU have ever met on the basketball court. The matchup provides a battle of two of the best college basketball coaches in the game. This marks the ninth appearance for the Buckeyes in the NCAA Tournament in 11 seasons under Thad Matta, and the seventh in a row. During that time Matta has amassed a 17-8 record in the tournament, as well as two trips to the Final Four.
Matta's coaching opposition will be Shaka Smart, who is in his sixth year at the helm for the Richmond-based squad. With the automatic bid out of the Atlantic 10, the Rams clinched their fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth, which marks the first time in school history that the Rams have reached five-straight NCAA Tournaments. The 163 wins Smart has recorded in his first six seasons at the school are currently tied for second in NCAA history to start a coaching career, only trailing the 166 wins of former Butler coach Brad Stevens. With 26 wins in each of the past six years, VCU is the only other team in Division I aside from Duke to reach that mark.
VCU looked to be cruising along earlier in the season, coming into their late January meeting with Richmond with a 17-3 record, but in the closing minutes of the game Weber tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus. Not only had the Rams lost their point guard, but they had lost their defensive backbone. Just to illustrate how respected Weber was on the defensive end, he was named Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight season despite missing the last month of the year. The 374 steals Weber accumulated during his career rank third all-time in NCAA history.
While JeQuan Lewis isn't quite the same as having Weber back there at point guard, the sophomore has filled in quite well for the Rams. Along with the emergence of Lewis, Mo Alie-Cox has also improved his play lately, and his performance this year was good enough to get Alie-Cox named to the Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team. Even without Weber and his quick hands in the lineup, the Havoc defense VCU employs still gives opponents fits.
VCU may receive most of their attention for their stellar defensive play, but it doesn't mean teams should sleep on their offense either. Treveon Graham leads the Rams with 16.3 points per game and Melvin Johnson has added 12.3 points per game so far this year. The 72.5 points per game the Rams average ranks just outside of the top-50 in the country, and when the defense is creating transition buckets for the offense it can make for a long game for opponents.
Numbers to know
8 - Not only is eight the number of NCAA Tournament games Amir Williams has played in, but it is also the total number of points the senior has scored in those eight games. During that same time, Williams has accumulated 11 fouls and six turnovers. If the Buckeyes have any hope of winning a few games and making a run in the NCAA Tournament, they'll need more than they have gotten from their center in previous tournaments.
70 - Ohio State and VCU have to feel that the magic number in this game is getting to 70 points. Both teams were 21-1 this season when scoring 70 points or more. If Ohio State fails to reach 70 points thy might not have much of a shot against a VCU team that has recorded a 21-2 record this year when their opponents have failed to score 70 points.
5.5 - The Havoc defense that VCU likes for frustrate opponents with is responsible for a +5.5 turnover margin in favor of the Rams this year, which ranks third in the country. In seven games this year, the number of turnovers committed by VCU's opponents have been great than the number of field goals their opponent has made in the game. In total, VCU's opponents have committed 566 turnovers this season, while VCU has only committed 372 turnovers.
Cast of characters
As if they haven't leaned on him enough this season, Ohio State is going to need their freshman from Louisville to turn in even bigger performances when the lights are brightest if they want to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Russell led all true freshman this year in scoring, averaging 19.3 points per game. When the pressure got turned up and the Buckeyes entered Big Ten play, Russell didn't melt under the heat, averaging 20.3 points per game in conference play.
The senior has done his part lately to try and give Ohio State another scoring option to rely on besides D'Angelo Russell. The biggest evidence of Scott taking on a little more of an assertive role came in the Big Ten Tournament against Minnesota, where he scored a career-high 21 points. Scott has reached double figures in scoring in each of the last four games after only doing so eight times in the first 29 games.
Graham has been wrapping up his VCU career by playing some of his best basketball of the season lately, and it was recognized when he was named MVP of the Atlantic 10 Tournament over the weekend. The past two seasons Graham was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Conference First Team, and he could cause issues for the Buckeyes with his ability to rebound and score. During his time at VCU, Graham ranks in the top-10 in scoring and rebounding, and his 21 career double-doubles are tied for sixth-most in school history.
When Briante Weber was lost for the season in late January there was a lot of question marks as to how the rest of the season for the Rams would play out. Luckily for Shaka Smart and the rest of his team, JeQuan Lewis has filled in admirably at point guard for VCU. Since being inserted into the starting lineup on February 4th, Lewis has averaged 11.9 points per game and 3.1 assists per game. While Lewis might not yet have quite the defensive prowess that Weber had, he is able to fill it up in the scoring column a little bit more than the senior.