Buckeyes’ Russell to face different kind of pressure

Published 4:10 am Thursday, March 19, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Do-it-all freshman D’Angelo Russell will likely be one of the top picks in the NBA draft this summer and inherit all the expectations that come with it.

First, he’ll find out whether he can handle a different kind of pressure: playing in the NCAA Tournament against a team that tries to create chaos.

Russell will lead Ohio State (23-10) against vigorous Virginia Commonwealth (26-9) in the round of 64 on Thursday, and even the Rams are eager to see what he can do on college basketball’s big stage.

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“Since the seeding came out, we’ve been watching prediction after prediction, expert after expert saying they got a top-three pick, that he’s mainly going to be the engine that makes them go,” VCU guard Melvin Johnson said. “We’re just going to go out and attack.”

The Buckeyes, seeded 10th in the West Regional, were booted in the Big Ten quarterfinals by Michigan State and went just 4-4 in their final eight games. But Ohio State showed all season that it’s always dangerous because of Russell, a dynamic 6-foot-5 lefty who can shoot and pass like a pro.

Russell averaged 19.3 points — most among freshmen — along with 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. He also shot 45.8 percent overall and 41.5 percent on 3-pointers.

Russell was not among the players who participated in Ohio State’s news conference Wednesday, and he was not available during the time reporters were allowed in the locker room. But Buckeyes’ coach Thad Matta said the last thing he’s concerned about is Russell dealing with the hefty weight on his shoulders.

“From the first time I began recruiting him, meeting him, then getting him to campus, he’s a very mature young man,” Matta said.

The seventh-seeded Rams are no strangers to battling — and beating — the best this time of year.

VCU is playing in the tournament for the fifth consecutive season, which began with a memorable run to the Final Four in 2011. The Rams have stayed steady since, becoming a March Madness regular behind a high-tempo offense and smothering defense that coach Shaka Smart calls “havoc.”

VCU won only five of its final 11 regular-season games — and suffered its first three-game losing streak in Smart’s six seasons as coach — after losing Briante Weber to a season-ending right knee injury in a loss to Richmond on Jan. 31. Even without the face of that havoc-causing defense, the Rams got hot in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and beat Dayton in the title game for the conference’s automatic berth.

Now they’re trying to carry that momentum through March again.

“Any year when you make the NCAA Tournament, I think there’s a level of healthy nervousness that comes along with it, even if you’ve played in it before,” Smart said. “But for our seniors, for our juniors, they’ve been in this situation before quite a bit.”


Here are five things to watch when VCU and Ohio State meet:

PRESSURE RELIEF: Russell will have plenty of help trying to break VCU’s pressure defense, which ranks third nationally in steals per game (9.7). Shannon Scott is an exceptional ball-handler, and reserve freshman Kam Williams gives Ohio State at least two point guards on the court at all times. Scott, a senior, will be playing in his fourth NCAA Tournament. He’s averaging 8.5 points and 5.9 assists. Williams is averaging 5.7 points.

INJURED LEADER: Even though he can’t play, Weber has provided an emotional lift for VCU. He sits next to coaches on the bench, and his immobilized leg doesn’t keep him from standing up to shout instructions and encouragement to teammates, who all say they wouldn’t be in the tournament without his guidance. Keep an eye on him on the sidelines.

BEYOND THE ARC: The biggest boost VCU can hope for is to carry over its scintillating 3-point shooting from the A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn. The Rams shot 45.1 percent (42 for 93) from long distance in wins over Fordham, Richmond, Davidson and Dayton. Ohio State is holding opponents to 31.8 percent shooting from 3-point range.

EFFICIENT BUCKEYES: Ohio State has been one of the most efficient offenses in the country, shooting 48.6 percent. That will be tested against the Rams, who like to push the pace and force opponents into quick shots.

ONE-AND-DONE: Both teams are trying to avoid losing their first tournament game for the second straight year. The Buckeyes were seeded sixth last March when they lost to 11th-seeded Dayton, while VCU was a No. 5 seed when they fell to 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin. Coincidentally, Stephen F. Austin will be in the building for its evening game against Utah. The winner of the VCU-Ohio State game will face either No. 2 Arizona or No. 15 Texas Southern.