Ohio State was judged to be the 39th-best team in the tournament according to the selection committee, receiving the third of four 10 seeds. And yet, the oddsmakers have more faith in the Buckeyes, giving them about the 20th-best shot at cutting down the nets on April 6.
The reason for the disparity is the fact that more often than not the Buckeyes will have the best player on the court in the postseason. Despite team deficiencies, D’Angelo Russell has been that good this season and appears capable of taking over the West Region, or at least the matchup with the Rams if he gets hot.
“Russell is as dynamic as a guard as there is in college basketball,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said. “He's obviously going to be a phenomenal player at the next level. But for right now, he's one of the best in all of college basketball, not just at scoring, but at making plays for his teammates and the way he does it so efficiently.”
Entering the postseason Russell mentioned Shabazz Napier and Kemba Walker – two former UConn players who led the Huskies to national titles in 2011 and 2014, respectively – when asked about his mindset entering a one-and-done situation.
The thought is that Russell, a player that led the Big Ten in scoring with 20.3 points per game in 18 conference games, could take over in the tournament. A look at the Rams this season, however, makes it seem unlikely that he will be able to do that in his first game.
Only four times this season have the Rams allowed an opposing player to score 25 points or more and two of those came in double-overtime games. Only once has a player scored 30 or more against VCU in regulation this year.
In 35 games this season, opponents leading scorers against VCU have tallied an average of 18.5 points per game. In the Rams nine losses that number climbs to 22.8.
While the thought of Russell taking over and carrying Ohio State to victory may be comforting for fans, Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta knows it will take more than one player to get by VCU.
“Obviously we are going to need D’Angelo to play really, really well, but our post guys have got to give us more down this stretch, they have to play their best,” Matta said. “We need some guys to make some shots off the bench and that sort of thing. So I think it’s more collectively. Last year when the little guard led UConn, the other guys were playing pretty well too. Their averages were up, their percentages were up as opposed to where they had been earlier in the season. That’s what you need.”
That means players like seniors Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson, sophomore Marc Loving and freshman Jae’Sean Tate will have to step up.
Russell gives Ohio State a chance in every game it plays, but that chance can only be realized if those around him raise their level of play as well, allowing Russell to play within the system and keep him from pressing in his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
“D'Angelo is a great player,” Scott said. “We try to tell him to play his game. Don't try to force anything. Basically just play like it's another basketball game. It's the NCAA tournament. He understands that. But, I don't know, just got to make sure he plays his game. He'll be good.”
For the Buckeyes to win, players other than Russell will need to be good too.