“I didn’t really look at the seed. I saw that we were in Portland heading to play VCU,” senior Sam Thompson said about an hour after learning of the Buckeyes tournament fate. “This is what we came to Ohio State to do is play in the NCAA tournament and have a chance to compete in the month of March.
“I was a fan when they made their deep run and they’ve kind of had that reputation ever since then. We know that they’re going to play hard, we know that 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 and it’s going to be a fun game.”
It has been four years since VCU marched through the 2011 NCAA Tournament to the program’s first Final Four, reaching the sport’s final weekend as an 11-seed. While no Rams that made that run are members of this year’s seventh-seeded squad, an identity was built during that run that persists.
Led by head coach Shaka Smart, the Rams (26-9) are known for their “havoc” defense that is employs an aggressive, full-court press. That style helped VCU to the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship this season and saw the team finish third in the country with 9.7 steals per game.
The Buckeyes appear to be well suited to get through the press defense as Shannon Scott is 33rd nationally in assist to turnover ratio, giving the ball away 2.3 times per game. D’Angelo Russell also has a positive assist to turnover ratio (1.73), though he does turn it over more than Scott with 2.9 per contest.
“I don’t know a ton about them,” head coach Thad Matta said Sunday, though he is likely well-versed in the Rams by now. “Obviously you know the reputation of the pressing and the trapping and shooting a ton of threes.
“But we haven’t come across a lot of teams that play that way. There’s not a whole lot of them out there. With a senior guard and D’Angelo, hopefully we are a tough team to press and trap.”
The Rams aggressive defensive strategy mirrors their offensive approach. VCU lives and dies outside the three-point line. The Rams make 8.1 shots from behind the arc and have attempted the 16th most threes of any team nationally. In fact, 39.9 percent of VCU’s field goal attempts have come from long range and they connect on 34.2 percent of those tries.
The three-point barrage comes in part because the Rams lack any true post threats. VCU does not start a player above 6-6 and bring 6-7 and 6-8 players off the bench. The Rams have been outrebounded by an average of 1.3 boards per game. All of that bodes well for the Buckeyes as Ohio State has struggled in the post this season and it may allow Matta to play the smaller lineup, one that forgoes a tradition center and has been effective at times this season.
VCU started the year 17-3, but closed the regular-season 5-5. That swoon coincided with the knee injury to guard Briante Weber who had been averaging 8.1 points per game, 4.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds.
The Rams closed strong, however, winning their final five games to claim the A10 tournament title. VCU also marks the first time that the Buckeyes have been the lower seed in the first round in nine tournament appearances under Matta.
Since the tournament began seeding the bracket in 1979 the No. 10 spot that the Buckeyes received this season is the lowest in program history.
“I think that it’s perception, reality,” Matta said of the Buckeyes underdog status. “The reality is they’re the seven-seed we’re the 10-seed. Those basketball geniuses in Indianapolis, they know what they’re doing is how I’ll tell our guys, and you’re picked to lose. We’ll be wearing the Scarlet jerseys.
“You’ve got to hope that you are hitting your stride, shots are falling for you. Somehow, some way you have to be playing your best basketball and if it’s not your best it has to be better than the other team.”