Ohio State survived the havoc on Thursday afternoon in Portland, pulling out a 75-72 overtime victory in the round of 64 against VCU. The game was something of a microcosm of the season for the Buckeyes, showing off what the team does well and how mightily they can struggle at times.
The Rams pulled out to a 12-point lead in the first half, prompting Ohio State head coach Thad Matta to call timeout and give his squad a verbal lashing.
"I went at 'em," he said, "I told them it was time to play our best basketball and man up. It was a very, very physical basketball game. We had to play tougher. I challenged them. To their credit, they did a great job of doing what we asked."
The Buckeyes rallied to finish the half on a 16-5 run, pulling to within a point at 30-29 at intermission. All-American freshman D'Angelo Russell caught fire to close things out, scoring 10 points over the final 5:07. The Louisville native kept that going in the second half and overtime en route to a game-high 28 points to go along with six rebounds, two blocks, and two steals.
"He's a winner," Matta said after the game. "The kid loves to win. He's going to do whatever he can to win basketball games."
Ohio State also got 13 points from senior Amir Williams, 12 points and eight rebounds from freshman Jae'Sean Tate, and 10 assists from senior Shannon Scott. Freshman Keita Bates-Diop also knocked down two clutch three-point shots at critical junctures.
For VCU, it was the second straight early exit from the NCAA tournament. Shaka Smart's squad was limited to just 38 percent shooting by the Buckeyes' blend of zone and man defensive looks throughout the game.
"Ohio State was really able to gain the aggressiveness advantage in the latter part of the [first] half," Smart said. "That was the difference, really, as they were able to come back and cut the lead down."
In the game immediately preceding Ohio State and VCU at the Moda Center, second-seeded Arizona encountered very little resistance in dispatching Texas Southern, 93-72. Matta protege Sean Miller got a balanced offensive attack from his team, with every starter scoring in double-figures, including a game-high 23 points and 10 boards from sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
The Buckeyes and Wildcats will take the floor at approximately 5:15 p.m. ET on Saturday with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line. Let's take a look at the matchup.
What We Learned About Ohio State on Thursday
All season long, Ohio State has seemed to be two different teams. There's the team that struggles from the field, turns the ball over, and makes mental mistakes on the defensive end, but there's also the team that badgers the opposition offense into making mistakes, gets out and runs the floor, and uses the dynamic playmaking ability of Russell to get multiple scoring options involved. Both of those teams made an appearance against VCU.
As has been the case all year, Russell displayed the potential of carrying the Buckeyes and scoring in a variety of ways. What Matta will need to see on Saturday if Ohio State hopes to shock Arizona is for seniors like Williams and Scott to contribute as they did against the Rams, and for someone aside from Russell to step up and make big shots the way Bates-Diop did.
The Buckeyes showed their grit and versatility in coming back from a double-digit deficit on Thursday. The team played big and small, played man-to-man and zone, and scored inside and out. They will need all of that and more if they hope to upend the Wildcats on Saturday.
What We Learned About Arizona on Thursday
In dispatching the Tigers, Arizona did exactly what it was expected to do as a No. 2 seed. The Wildcats have length, athleticism, and experience, and can beat their opponents in a multitude of ways.
Miller depends on senior point guard T.J. McConnell to be an extension of the coaching staff on the floor, and the Pittsburgh native has become the engine for this team on both ends of the floor. McConnell does a nice job of putting the talented trio of Hollis-Jefferson, freshman Stanley Johnson, and junior Brandon Ashley in positions to exploit the weaknesses of the defense.
Those three averaged just under 40 points and 20 rebounds a game throughout the season, and eclipsed those numbers against Georgia Southern. In addition to Hollis-Jefferson's big day, Johnson chipped in 22 points and five boards, and Ashley had 14 and four.
"We have to make sure we're locked in and focused," Ashley said after the game. "Because at this point, anybody in this tournament has the ability to beat you. We can't take anyone lightly."
If Arizona comes out firing on all cylinders on Saturday, Ohio State will be facing a serious uphill battle. After winning both the Pac-12 regular season and tournament championships, the Wildcats are among the handful of teams that would appear to have a shot to contend for a Final Four and at knocking off the seemingly-invincible Kentucky Wildcats.
Numbers to Know
Arizona is sixth in the country in field goal percentage, knocking down 48.9 percent of their shots from the floor. Ohio State is right on the Wildcats' heels, though, at 48.6 percent, which is good for 11th nationally, and shot it at a 49 percent clip against VCU. Arizona hit an astounding 60 percent from the floor against Georgia Southern. If both sides are getting good looks, this could be a very high-scoring game.
Miller's squad has now won 12 in a row, not having been on the losing end since February 7th. Arizona has outscored opponents an average of 86-59 during that stretch, and come into Saturday's game 15th in the country by limiting the opposition to 59 points per game for the season. When the Wildcats are locked in defensively, they can make it very difficult to get an open look.
"I think the point is that we have to get back to being an excellent defensive team, which takes a lot of effort and concentration," Miller said. "We want to make sure when that game ends, we feel good about what we did, especially on defense."
If Ohio State hopes to pull the upset, it will need to play a near-flawless game. An early double-digit deficit against this Arizona team will almost surely be insurmountable. The Buckeyes need complementary scoring next to Russell, which they got from Williams, Tate, and Bates-Diop against VCU. A secondary option stepping up and having a big game is vital to the hopes for an upset.
On the Arizona side, it will all be about how it defends Russell. The Buckeye freshman has had his issues dealing with length and physicality at times this season, and the trio of Ashley, Hollis-Jefferson, and Johnson have plenty of it. If the Wildcats shut Russell down, the extra pressure put on Ohio State's other players on the offensive end may be too much to overcome. Without a big game from Russell, this one could get out of hand.
Arizona and Ohio State are scheduled to tip off at 5:15 p.m. ET on Saturday. The game will be televised on CBS.