Kansas will test Thomas

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Last updated: 12/21/2012 7:28 PM

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Men's basketball
Kansas Game Will Test Growth of Ohio State’s Biggest Star
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said something interesting after Tuesday’s 10-point loss at Ohio State.

To be fair, Kelsey said a lot of fascinating things after that game, but one thing in particular seems exceptionally relevant considering the Buckeyes host 9th-ranked Kansas on Saturday. It will be the first nationally-televised game for Ohio State since the devastating loss at Duke last month unless we are calling Big Ten Network national television now.

Deshaun Thomas
Photo by Jim Davidson
Deshaun Thomas

Kelsey, who is in his first year at Winthrop but probably won’t be there long, felt his team did a good job of slowing down Ohio State’s fastbreak offense. The Eagles kept the Buckeyes from capitalizing on easy baskets the way Thad Matta would have liked, and really felt they were in the game right up until Deshaun Thomas decided to play like he was back in the NCAA Tournament.

“He did what All-Americans do, he put the game on his shoulders,” Kelsey said.

“I’ve been around some really good ones. I was on a coaching staff (at Wake Forest) with Chris Paul, and when the game is on the line, that’s what All-Americans do.”

When the game was on the line at Duke, it wasn’t Deshaun Thomas, but Aaron Craft, who took most of the big shots down the stretch. That’s not because Matta suddenly forgot he had a preseason All-American, and one of the best scorers in the country, on the floor.

The Blue Devils did an exceptional job of turning Thomas, who led all scorers during March Madness, into a bystander during the final, crucial minutes of Ohio State’s 73-68 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Deshaun Thomas
Photo by Jim Davidson
Deshaun Thomas

Thomas had 16 points in that game on 6-of-14 shooting – his lowest scoring output since a foul-plagued loss to Kansas in the Final Four. He followed it up with only 14 points in a game where Northern Kentucky coach Dave Bezold joked about wanting to put six to seven defenders on Ohio State’s best player.

“He’s just got to work a little bit harder,” coach Thad Matta said.

“That’s what great players do. ‘OK, this has been taken away. What’s the next thing I need to be able to do?’ ”

It seems unfair to hold Thomas to such a high standard, especially when his teammates were the ones missing shots down the stretch in that Duke game. Thomas, a former high school All-American out of Indiana, is drawing constant attention from opponents' best defenders, but that is the standard by which Deshaun Thomas will now be judged.

“You know LeBron James is going to shoot for the Miami Heat, but he has to work a little bit harder to get those shots off,” Matta said, pointing to the fact Thomas is already considered to be NBA-caliber scorer.

“That’s something that’s probably a little bit new for Deshaun in terms of understanding. He’s got to continue to move, continue to find the (open) areas.”

When Thomas was pouring in baskets during Ohio State’s run to the Final Four, most of the attention from teams like Gonzaga and Syracuse was centered around two-time All-American Jared Sullinger.

Whenever Matta needed a big score, or needed to put an end to a big run by the other team, he would make sure his players found a way to get the ball down inside to Sullinger, who scored on more than 50 percent of his shots at Ohio State.

Sullinger was only as effective as the players around him, which is probably why he had a better statistical year as a freshman. Last year’s team advanced further than the one in 2010-11, but it’s hard to argue it was a better all-around team than the one that featured not only Sullinger and Aaron Craft, but also Jon Diebler and David Lighty.

Thomas was a bench player on that team two years ago, which he recently called the best in the country, so he had to learn how to play a secondary scoring role for the Buckeyes as a sophomore last season.

“I mentioned this earlier in the year, I felt like when he was playing his best basketball last year at the end of the season,” Matta said of Thomas.

“He and Jared had a (connection). They were probably playing as well as two players could play together on a team. With Jared not being here, I’ve been pleased with how he’s incorporated himself with the other guys.”

That was a big thing for Thomas, who had never had to worry about where his points were going to come from. In high school, Thomas was simply bigger and better than everyone else on the court.

He averaged nearly around 30 points a game all four years at Bishop Leurs High School and became the third-leading scorer in the history of the Hoosier State. He can score from anywhere at any time, but Matta and his staff have challenged Thomas to become even more versatile with his game at the offensive end of the court, where he is as comfortable with the basketball as Aaron Craft is with a pair of bricks in his hands.

“I think he’s got a pretty good mix right now of the inside-out (game),” Matta said recently.

“He’s put the ball on the floor more than he has (in the past). You think back to his freshman year, he was catch and shoot. Now he’s putting it on the deck a little bit more, just kind of rounding (out) his game.”

The next step for Thomas will be the biggest one he ever makes as a basketball player. It’s that step from really good college player to dominant force who can take over a game, even when the other team knows he’s getting the basketball.

That’s what made Sullinger such an incredible talent. Certainly there were times he looked like he was forcing shots at the rim, but he had a natural ability to put the ball in the basket even when he was drawing double-teams.

“The thing we talk about is efficiency as a player and being a complete player,” Matta said of Thomas, who has taken over as the focal point of Ohio State’s offense.

“I think I’ve seen great growth in terms of the little things we’re looking at. I think he’s playing about as solid basketball as he possibly can.”

There was one moment against Winthrop the other night where it really seemed like Thomas was starting to understand what his coach is talking about. He had gotten hot from the floor in the second half, and had a decent look from behind the arc. It wouldn’t have been a great shot for most guys, but Thomas is so gifted he can make any shot look good.

Instead, he zipped a bounce pass around his defender to center Amir Williams, who had cut under the basket for a two-handed dunk.

“It's just me becoming a player and just knowing the game and understanding it. Knowing when to make the extra pass,” Thomas said after the game.

“Probably freshman year, I wouldn't have made that pass. I probably would have jacked it up. It's just me learning the game and becoming an impact player and knowing there's other things than just scoring. There's other things in the game of basketball.”

Now Thomas will have to chance to show just how far he’s come against the same team that knocked Ohio State out of the tournament back in March. It won’t be easy, especially with 7-footer Jeff Withey waiting for him down in the paint, but like Kelsey said, that’s what All-Americans do.

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