After stumbling in two of the team's last three games entering the NCAA tournament, Ohio State will try to right the ship when it matters most. The Buckeyes will have their hands full on the floor in Portland, though, as opponent Virginia Commonwealth plays a fast-paced style, pressuring the ball full court and trapping at every opportunity. It's what Rams head coach Shaka Smart calls "havoc," and Ohio State's ball handlers will have their work cut out for them in attacking it.
"We know they're going to play hard," senior Sam Thompson said. "We know they're going to trap all over the court, they're going to play with a ton of energy. We're going to do the same thing. It's going to be a fun game."
As the 10 seed in the West Region, this Buckeye squad has the distinction of being the lowest-seeded tournament team head coach Thad Matta has had in his tenure in Columbus. Ohio State has been inconsistent night-in and night-out over the past two and a half months. Whether the Buckeyes can survive on Thursday will depend in large part on which team shows up.
"We've got to play our best basketball," Thompson said. "We're not going to beat anybody playing the way we did versus Wisconsin, and conversely, we're going to beat a lot of people playing the way we did versus Penn State, the game before that."
VCU landed the No. 7 seed with a 26-9 record, and is fresh off winning the Atlantic-10's conference tournament. The Rams are on a five-game winning streak, including victories over fellow NCAA tourney teams Dayton and Davidson, and are playing some of their best basketball of the season.
"We've got some momentum, but we can't think we've arrived," senior Traevon Graham said on Sunday. "Every game, we've got to go in like we're the underdogs. We can't go in timid. We've got to attack, just go out there and play VCU basketball."
In what has the potential to be an up-tempo, high-scoring game, Ohio State is looking to slough off its recent sluggishness and give Matta his 18th career March Madness win at the helm of the scarlet and gray. Let's take a look at the Buckeyes' matchup with the Rams.
When Ohio State has the ball
It will be critical for Ohio State to protect the ball against VCU's pressure defense. Freshman D'Angelo Russell and senior Shannon Scott will have the ball in their hands a lot, and have had trouble at times turning the ball over. The pair averaged five turnovers per game this season, but more telling may be December's loss to Louisville, which also applies full-court pressure. Russell and Scott combined for nine turnovers in that game. A similar performance on Thursday could mean an early exit for the Buckeyes.
An advantage Ohio State will have if it can beat the press and set up its half-court offense will be VCU's lack of length. In the Rams' A-10 title game win over Dayton, the tallest player to log meaningful minutes was 6-foot-7 freshman Justin Tillman. That lack of size should mean increased opportunities in the paint for the likes of senior Amir Williams and freshman Jae'Sean Tate, as well as dribble drive chances for Russell, Scott, and Thompson.
When VCU has the ball
For the third consecutive season, Graham has been VCU's leading scorer. The 6-foot-6 wing from Temple Hills, Maryland racks up 16.3 points, as well as a team-high 7 rebounds, per game. Graham was named the MVP of the A-10 tourney after averaging over 17 points per game in the Barclays Center.
Complementing Graham are junior Melvin Johnson (12.3 ppg), and sophomores Mo-Alie Cox (7.4 ppg, 5.7 rbg) and JeQuan Lewis (8.4 ppg).
The Rams shoot nearly 24 three-pointers a game, and come in hot from the perimeter. The team tied an A-10 tournament record with 40 long distance makes in their four games, including 10-for-27 in the final. If that level of production continues in Portland, Smart's squad will be very tough to beat.
Numbers to Know
VCU is third in the country in steals, swiping 9.7 per game, and third in turnover margin. A big reason why was senior point guard Briante Weber, who had his career come to an end when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in a loss to Richmond on January 31st. Weber was averaging 3.9 steals a night. Johnson, Lewis, and sophomore Doug Brooks all average more than one theft a game.
The Rams rank 190th in Division I in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 43.3 percent from the floor. Ohio State is 11th in the country in field goal percentage, knocking down 48.6 percent of its shots. The Buckeyes are at their best when they're running and attacking, which they should have the opportunity to do against VCU's pressing defense. If Ohio State knocks down shots, it has a good chance at outlasting the Rams. But, the Buckeyes have seen their shooting percentage drop to 41.2 percent in the five games they've played in March thus far.
This game will be decided by energy. Smart demands it of his players, and VCU brings it for forty minutes. Ohio State has had its issues with getting up for games at times, looking sluggish and facing big deficits early. If that Buckeye team is the one that shows up at the Moda Center, they'll be headed back to Columbus early.
"You've got to have that excitement, that energy, when you go into these games," Matta said Sunday. "Because it's forty minutes, and leaving [something] on the table would be a crying shame."
If Ohio State has the energy and plays smart, it can play with nearly anyone in the country. Down to their last chance this season, the Buckeyes have no excuse for coming out flat once again.
"We all feel like we've been given new life," Thompson said. "Everyone at this point is 0-0 and it's a one-game season, and we're excited about it."
Ohio State and VCU are tentatively scheduled to tip at 4:40 p.m. ET on Thursday at the Moda Center in Portland. The game is set to be televised on TNT.