PITTSBURGH – Jamari Wheeler had 156 career games when he woke up Friday morning. Malaki Branham, his starting partner on the perimeter at Ohio State, woke up with 30 to his name.
When they entered PPG Paints Arena, they both made their NCAA Tournament debuts at the same time. Together, the 18-year-old and 24-year-old Branham helped No. 7 seed Ohio State stifle shooting guards from No. 10 seed Loyola Chicago, limit the Ramblers to 41 points and emerge with a 13-point win. .
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Now comes a more challenging task in a similar vein. With a chance to take on rival Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, the Buckeyes will take on No. 2 seed Villanova on Sunday at 2:40 p.m. frenetic pace.
Villanova is led by fifth-year senior guard Collin Gillespie, who leads the team with 15.9 points and 3.4 assists and boasts a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. It will be up to Wheeler and his fellow guards to hold off Gillespie and lead the Buckeyes to victory.
At 6-1, 190 pounds, Wheeler gives up two inches and 20 pounds to the 22-year-old Gillespie.
“Just being physical,” Wheeler said when asked for his clues to protecting a bigger guard. “(To) start a game, we are setting the rules. It’s a one-on-one defense, but at the same time it’s a team defense. So I’m going to use my speed, my quickness to protect his big guards and little guards, but taking my time and executing the defensive plan.”
After failing to make the NCAA Tournament during his four seasons with Penn State, Wheeler finished with 4 points, four rebounds, an assist, a steal and two turnovers in 30:15 against Loyola Chicago. In an 80-60 victory against No. 15 seed Delaware, Gillespie finished with 14 points, four assists and a turnover in 32:28. He is shooting 42.3% (102-for-241) from 3-point range, the 79th-best percentage in the nation.
It’s not just Gillespie. Youth shooting guard Justin Moore, the team’s second-leading scorer at 15.2 points per game and third-leading rebounder at 5.0, is 6-4, 215. He is 21 years old.
Branham, by contrast, is 6-5, 180.
“Gillespie is also a very physical, powerful shooting guard,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I think that’s a concern. We are small and we are also light in some of those places. Malaki is not short but he is skinny. It is a great concern, because they place their guards.”
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While Wheeler’s primary impact was on the defensive end against Loyola Chicago, Branham finished as Ohio State’s second-leading scorer with 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting and had a career-high four steals.
“They’re an experienced bunch,” Gillespie said of Branham and Wheeler. “They’ve been to a lot of college basketball games, and even Branham has been to a lot of games his freshman year. It’s going to be a battle. They are great players.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright called Branham “a stud” who will be difficult for the Wildcats to defend.
“He’s a really skilled player with great length and quickness,” he said. “He’s long enough that he can use his quickness to get you to the rim and score over you. He’s skilled enough that if you give him too much room, he’ll punch a 3. Really mature as a player for a freshman.”
For the Buckeyes to make their first Sweet Sixteen since the 2013 season, it will have to be. And so will the rest of the defense zone.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Villanova’s backcourt size could spell trouble for Ohio State