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Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

Ohio State freshman D’Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Much of the talk surrounding VCU’s NCAA Tournament Round of 64 match-up with Ohio State has centered on Buckeyes’ star guard D’Angelo Russell, and for good reason.

Russell, a 6-foot-5 freshman, was recently named All-America by the United States Basketball Writers Association. The Louisville, Kentucky native ranks first nationally among freshmen in scoring (19.3 ppg) and is third in assists (168). Should he declare this spring, Russell is likely a top-five NBA Draft pick. has him third in its most recent mock draft.

VCU’s game plan will likely dedicate a chunk of attention to slowing down Russell, who has shown little difficulty adjusting to college basketball. A deft ball handler, Russell has also hit 90 three-pointers this year and leads Ohio State in rebounding (5.6 rpg). But it’s his passing skills that have people talking. From one-handed, laser bounce feeds to eye-popping spin passes in traffic, Russell’s vision, and the ability to get the ball into small spaces makes him especially dangerous.

VCU’s Michael Gilmore can vouch for Russell’s skills. They were AAU teammates with Each1 Teach1 in Florida. Gilmore soon realized that Russell wasn’t like other point guards.

“There would be times [in the huddle] where he’d just yell at me, roll, roll, roll after I set screens for him because after a couple of times where I didn’t think I was open,” Gilmore said. “I started trusting him with it. He’s a very good passer.”

Gilmore also has first-hand knowledge of how Russell’s scoring and passing ability play off of each other.

“There were times where you didn’t know if he was shooting it, if he was going to pass it to you. That’s just the type of person he is, that’s the player he is. He’s crafty. He’s shifty. He’s unpredictable, and that’s how he gets all his scoring off of stuff like that,” Gilmore said.

VCU back-up point guard Jonathan Williams, who attended St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, played against Russell, who attended Montverde Academy in Florida, at the 2013 ESPN National High School Basketball Invitational. Montverde won 67-65.

“He’s real good. Very crafty,” Williams said.

But while Williams is impressed with Russell’s game, he cautioned against losing sight of the rest of Ohio State’s players.

“If you key too much on him you’ve got somebody like Shannon Scott or Sam Thompson that will get off, so you’ve just got to work on containing him and stuff like that,” he said.

VCU sophomore guard Doug Brooks has been one VCU’s most-improved players this season. After a freshman year in which he averaged just 1.9 points and shot 26 percent from the field in limited action, Brooks has become a critical piece of VCU’s success. He’s averaging 4.9 points per game and is shooting 39 percent (27-of-69) from 3-point range. He’s also become one of VCU’s best on-ball defenders.

Brooks averaged just 4.4 minutes per game as a freshman, but his role has steadily grown this season, and he recently played his way into VCU’s starting lineup.

The crystalizing moment of Brooks’ breakout season came in the waning moments of the Atlantic 10 Championship Game on March 15. With the Rams clinging to a two-point lead with a minute remaining, Brooks came up with a steal and fed a streaking JeQuan Lewis for a bucket that helped seal the Rams’ victory.

“I feel great for him because he’s come so far,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said afterwards. “I really believed coming into this year that after Briante [Weber] that he was our next best energy guy at just making things happen and having great intensity and flying around on the defensive end. He’s not Bri, there will never be another Bri, but he’s helped a lot with plays like that.”

Brooks seems at home now, but it wasn’t always that way. Earlier this season, Smart said Brooks “nearly quit” over frustration that stemmed from finding a role with the Rams. During one five-game stretch early in the year, Brooks recorded four games with eight minutes or less and one DNP (did not play).

“This season has been great,” Brooks said Wednesday. “Ups, downs, like always, but I just fought through it and stuck through the process.”

Brooks admits he was considered leaving the program at one point, but decided against it.

“It was really tough for me because I wasn’t playing. I’m a competitor. If we won, I felt like I wasn’t part of it just because I really didn’t do anything,” he said.

Brooks says he confided in his high school coaches for advice.

“I feel like I was able to stick it out because my coach back home told me, it’s part of the process. You’ve got to stick with it and fight through it because life doesn’t always go your way, so just stick with things and hopefully, God’s will, things will come my way.”

Of late, they have. He was inserted into the starting lineup six games ago and provided three crucial 3-pointers in VCU’s A-10 quarterfinal win over Richmond, not to mention his steal in the Dayton game.

On the floor, Brooks just looks different. As a freshman, Brooks was prone to shoot the ball as soon as he touched it. He’s approaching the game differently these days.

“I’ve got a better attitude this year, better than last year. That’s probably why I’m playing more,” he said. “Last year I was selfish. This year I want to play more team ball, and I know what it takes to win, and being selfish doesn’t win…and taking a shot every time I catch it isn’t always the right thing.”

“I mean, that’s the first time we heard that they were going to be the underdogs in this matchup, voted a lower seed. Like I said since the seeding came out, we’ve been watching prediction after prediction, expert after expert saying they got a one, they got a top three pick, he’s mainly going to be the engine that make them go. This is the first time we heard about them being the underdog. We always have a chip on our shoulder, find something to motivate us. We don’t know whether we’re going to take the underdog approach or whether they do, we don’t really care. We’re just going to go out and attack.” – Melvin Johnson

“Every game, if I feel like he’s not shooting the ball or he’s hesitating, I try to go to him and let him know I need him to shoot no matter if he’s making or missing. It opens up the floor not just for me, but Mo. We need him to shoot no matter what’s going on in the game. If he can play defense and make his shots, he’s a great player.” — Treveon Graham on Melvin Johnson