That’s coming from a guy who spent entire game firmly planted in my seat along press row, so I can’t imagine how Ohio State and VCU players actually feel after the Buckeyes topped the Rams 75-72 in overtime Thursday to advance to the Round of 32.
It was a great way for me to start my coverage of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Here are some of my takeaways from the Buckeyes huge win.
- Season-Saving Shift: Early in the season fans couldn’t complain enough about Thad Matta’s insistence on playing a zone defense. Well on Thursday the experience in that set and Matta’s decision to shift into it may have saved the season.
- No Small Ball Early: While a win is a win, I was pretty surprised that Matta did not elect to use a small lineup at any point in the first half. The coach didn’t forgo a traditional center until the under 12 timeout after intermission. I was surprised by that decision given that VCU’s biggest starter was 6-8 and the Buckeyes have been particularly effective in small lineups for stretches this season.
- Amir A Mixed Bag: For much of the game Amir Williams didn’t play well. Despite logging 14 first-half minutes, he didn’t control a rebound before intermission. In fact, his first board didn’t come until there was just 3:14 left in regulation. But that was the first of two straight huge rebounds and the much-maligned center scored four of his 13 points in that final 3:14.
- Scott Aggressively Creating: Certainly the shift to zone made a difference, but the biggest change I saw coming out of the critical first-half timeout that prompted a 16-5 Ohio State run to close the half was in the play of Shannon Scott. The senior assisted on four of the Buckeyes five field goals during that run and he was aggressively looking to distribute. For Scott, it’s a fine line as he needs to be aggressive to play well, but that aggression needs to be channeled into his passing. He struck that balance against the Rams finishing with nine points and 10 assists.
- Press No Problem: I thought the Buckeyes would be able to handle VCU’s press well Thursday (one of few areas in which I correctly forecasted the game) and they did. Scott and Russell neutered the Rams havoc, combining for just seven turnovers. It seemed to result in a change of strategy for VCU as the Rams seemed to stop doubling the initial inbounds pass after it proved ineffective.
- Technical Unacceptable: It didn’t end up costing Ohio State the game, but I don’t understand how Trey McDonald was not entered into the scorebook correctly. The senior has been wearing No. 55 all year (and I believe for his entire career) and yet it was entered in as No. 50. When he checked in with 14:41 left in the first half it resulted in what was announced as an “administrative technical.” That was a new one for me.
- FREE Throws: I’m beating a dead horse on this one, but Ohio State was dreadful at the free-throw line yet again Thursday. The Buckeyes finished just 13 of 22 (59.1 percent) against the Rams. Russell hit the most important two of the game to put it on ice, but once again Ohio State was lucky their poor shooting on an uncontested shot from 15 feet didn’t cost it.
- Freshman Come Up Big: The Ohio State freshman, led by 28 from Russell, finished with 46 points on 17 of 30 shooting with 15 rebounds. Keita Bates-Diop proved to be the hero (more on him coming tomorrow), and Russell and Tate continued solid play for a very productive day from the three players in their first NCAA Tournament game.
- Not To Be A Downer But….: Arizona is really, really good. I was courtside for their demolition of Texas Southern and the Wildcats have strong, lengthy athletes at every position on the court. The appear to me to be a terrible matchup for the Buckeyes who will be hard pressed to slow down the Wildcats lineup littered with future pros.
The Buckeyes were down 12, their largest deficit of the game, when Matta sent his men out of a timeout in a zone look. It proved incredibly effective in the first half as the Rams went just 2-10 against it in the final 6:38 of the period. VCU had been 8 of 24 up until that point.
“Every time they drove I mean it seemed like they were getting fouls too,” Jae’Sean Tate said. “I feel like the 2-3 zone really upped our level of play. We got on a run and that’s where our intensity upped too.”
While VCU sorted out the zone some in the second half, most notably when Doug Brooks hit four straight threes, it kept the Rams from getting dribble penetration which is how they had been creating open looks from distance early on.
“There were like three different games going on out there today,” Matta said. “There was the big lienup for both teams, the small lineup for both teams, the zone lineup. There was a lot of different things going on to create the matchups we were trying to get.”
Yeah, I suppose I will go ahead and defer to the man with 299 coaching victories at Ohio State.
“Nobody wants to go home this time of year and it comes down to who don’t want to go home more,” Williams said. “I think down the stretch we came together as a unit and we started making big plays all together. Whether it’s Keita finding me for a dunk or Keita hitting a big shot or D’Angelo making a big shot, we came together and decided to make plays in order for us to help us win today.”
“It's a great scheme, but if you beat it a few times, the coaches usually back out of it,” Russell said. “I mean, we didn't really turn the ball over from it, so they wasn't really getting easy buckets from it.”
“We knew that (Arizona coach Sean Miller) is a coach Matta protégé, so we know that they are going to be very well prepared, we know that they are going to play hard for forty minutes, we know that they are going to execute, we know that they are going to defend,” Sam Thompson said. “We know that they are not going to beat themselves. We have to go out and take the game. We are going to watch film on them, we are going to prepare these next couple days for them and we are going to be ready to roll.”