Out West, one of the more intriguing matchups in the round-of-64 can be found. When the Ohio State takes on Virginia Commonwealth, it'll be a battle of defense, and a quest for redemption.
This year, both teams will be trying to better their showings. With the Rams making their fifth-straight appearance and the Buckeyes their seventh, it's a battle of pride when these two take to the hardwood on Thursday afternoon in Portland. Certainly neither school wants to suffer an early exit from the tournament two years in a row.
For both schools, the road to the tournament has been one filled with twists and turns. The Buckeyes saw one of their leading scorers, Marc Loving, suspended for a handful of games for violating team rules. The Rams, however, lost arguably their best player, and conference defensive player of the year, in Briante Webber to an injury in late January. Weber was just 12 steals shy of the NCAA all-time record.
And while the loss of Webber certainly hurt VCU defensively, offensively they have remained intact. Thanks to the senior leadership of Treveon Graham (16.3 ppg, 7 rpg), the Rams average 72.5 points per game, placing them in the top-half of division one college basketball.
Where the Rams steak their claim, however, is on defense. Known for their "havoc" play that combines full-court press and traps, they're third in the country in steals (9.7) and give up an average of 65.5 points per game. As they go up against a Buckeyes team that averages 11 turnovers per game, forcing turnovers and wreaking "havoc" is certainly one advantage the Richmond, Va.-based school holds.
For the Rams, they're led by a senior. On the other sideline, the Buckeyes are lead by freshman guard D'Angelo Russell. Likely heading to the NBA after this season, Russell paces the Buckeyes' offense, averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Defensively, he's shown some spark, recording 1.6 steals per game.
While he may dazzle with his dribbling abilities, Russell's season has seen it's fair share of ups and downs. When his shooting is cold, it's ice cold. And when that happens, the Buckeyes have struggled mightily to put together any kind of offense.
Against the Michigan St. Spartans in the Big Ten Conference Tournament semifinals, the Spartans' suffocating defense gave them an early advantage and prevented the Buckeyes from mounting any sort of comeback. In VCU, the Buckeyes will see a similar defensive strategy. Shaka Smart loves to frustrate his opponents with a relentless attack that begins before the ball is even inbounded.
For the Buckeyes, this game sits squarely on the shoulders of the young Russell. As the leader of the team, the Buckeyes go as he goes. With Sam Thompson as the team's second-leading scorer with 10.2 points per game, there won't be much help for Russell on the offensive end if he can't find his shot early on. While Marc Loving shoots a team-high 46-percent from behind the arc, he's shot just 20-percent from downtown and has scored in double-figures just once in eight games since he returned from his suspension in mid-February.
It's difficult to find a way in which this game shakes out in Ohio State's favor other than by the Buckeyes playing exceptional defense, something they can do. The Buckeyes allow an average of 62.4 points per game and average 7.8 steals. On the boards, though, the Rams hold the advantage, averaging 35.4 offensive rebounds while the Buckeyes manage just 24.6 a game defensively.
If Ohio State can keep this to a low-scoring contest, that'll be their best chance to win. VCU's all-around better team-offense is something that could become an issue for the Buckeyes, especially if the Rams' "havoc" defense provides some early struggles for them.
Bottom line, the Rams have one of the nation's top defenses, and they're going toe-to-toe with one of the NCAA's worst offenses. With that being the case, the Buckeyes will need to keep this a low-scoring affair because the Rams will certainly do their part to frustrate the Ohio State's attack. If you love defense, this is a matchup for you.
Both schools have a lot on the line, but certainly more pressure has to be on the Buckeyes as they hail from a power-five conference. After an early dismissal a year ago, there's plenty of pressure on Thad Matta's bunch to improve and represent the Big Ten Conference well with a strong showing.
On the other side, Smart's Rams can enter the contest feeling loose with much of the pressure on their opponents. While VCU may be put on upset alert, most of the country will likely scrutinize Ohio State should VCU win, but they won't breakdown the Rams if the Buckeyes pull off the upset.