Gut check time for Ross

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Last updated: 02/05/2013 3:48 AM

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Men's Basketball
Gut Check Time for OSU Sophomore LaQuinton Ross
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It took LaQuinton Ross nearly two years to hear what his coaches were trying to tell him.

He’s listening now.

LaQuinton Ross
Photo by Jim Davidson
LaQuinton Ross

With his bright future slipping away into obscurity, Ross has spent the better part of his career Ohio State toiling away at the end of Thad Matta’s bench. He has been frustrated, confused and, as we found out recently, outright defiant at times about his lack of playing time with the Buckeyes.

“The beginning of this year, (and) last year, I was a little rebellious against stuff they said because I wasn’t playing,” Ross admitted last week.

“So I was like, ‘I’m not playing so you can’t tell me nothing.’ ”

It came to a breaking point during the first two weeks of Big Ten play as Ohio State battled in the hunt for another conference championship early in the season.

Ross skipped Ohio State’s pregame meal at Illinois because he was ‘tired’ and the Buckeyes lost by 19. When Ohio State knocked off No. 2-ranked Michigan in Columbus – the school’s archrival from up north – he wasn’t even a part of it, the win or the celebration.

He could feel himself slipping away from the team.

“Everybody out there was celebrating. We just beat the No. 2 team in the country,” Ross said. “But inside, I think I was being kind of selfish because I was thinking, ‘I didn’t get my chance.’ ”

Forget the fact teammate Sam Thompson, who typically splits time with Ross at the small forward position, held heralded UM freshman Nik Stauskas to zero points for the first time all season.

Ross was upset about the fact he only played three minutes in a 56-53 win over the previously undefeated Wolverines, which happen to be the same group Ohio State will face Tuesday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Ann Arbor.

It was the fourth game in a row in which his playing time had decreased after he saw 20 minutes on the court against Nebraska in the Big Ten opener. He scored eight points in that game on 4 of 5 shooting, but when Matta called on him to be ready against Illinois – with the team trailing big and desperately needing a spark – Ross was overwhelmed by the moment.

He missed all five of his shots and turned the ball over three times as the Fighting Illini eventually hammered the final nail home against an OSU team that looked overmatched on the road.

LaQuinton Ross
Photo by Jim Davidson

It would turn out to be a blip on the radar. The Buckeyes have won six of their last seven since being run out of Assembly Hall up in Champaign, Ill. back on Jan. 5. Over the last four, Ross is averaging nearly 18 minutes a night, and he has given Matta’s team a little bit of a boost at the offensive end.

“I just started talking to myself,” the free-firing, 6-8 forward out of Mississippi said.

“Like, ‘What do I have to do to get on the court? What do I have to do to impress the coaches? What can I do to be a better teammate?’ From then on, I’ve come to practice every day and tried to listen; listen to my teammates, listen to my coaches.”
Matta started to take notice. He saw more fire and urgency from Ross in practice, but more importantly he saw a different demeanor off the court. Ross was starting to pay attention during film study and he wasn’t rebelliously staring at the floor when they were going over the game plan.

“LaQuinton is on that curve of becoming a complete player,” Matta said of his sophomore.

“I think he has a better understanding of what he needs to do on a daily basis on and off the court. We need LaQuinton to continue at the pace he is because he’s definitely helping us.”

On Tuesday night, Ross hit a couple of big shots against Wisconsin to help Deshaun Thomas get himself going at the offensive end.

Ohio State trailed 9-8 more than halfway through the first half when Thomas caught the ball on the wing. He had already scored the team’s first eight points when he made a move to the basket.

Instead of going by his man, Thomas drew another defender to the area and whipped the ball out to the three point line. Ross calmly sank a three-pointer to put the Buckeyes in double figures.

LaQuinton Ross
Photo by Jim Davidson
LaQuinton Ross

It wasn’t off glass. It didn’t circle around the basket before going. It wasn’t an off balance circus shot or a contested three that just happened to find daylight. No, Ross spotted up from behind the arc and smoothly stroked a three that barely moved the net.

It’s something this team has desperately needed from someone other than Thomas when defenses are keying in on Ohio State’s best player the way Nebraska did over the weekend in Lincoln.

“Him coming off the bench, hitting big shots, it's another piece to our puzzle,” said Thomas, who leads the Big Ten in scoring this season despite being Ohio State’s lone offensive weapon most of the time.

“It helps our team a lot and it lets you know there's a lot of weapons out there.”

Thomas is one of the true success stories at Ohio State. Like Ross, he was a high school phenom who came to Columbus with visions of carrying the Buckeyes on his back the way Jared Sullinger did as a freshman two years ago.

Instead, Thomas found his behind planted to the seat next to Matta and the coaching staff for most of his rookie year. The same goes for classmate Lenzelle Smith Jr.

“When you first get here, everybody’s an all-star,” said Smith, a junior out of Illinois.

“That’s how you feel. That’s your mentality. You play for one of the best programs in the country and you think so highly of yourself.

“You don’t feel like anybody should be playing over you, even the guys who came in before you and might be better than you. You feel like you’re the new kid on the block and the opportunity is unlimited for you.”

Smith was in a little bit different position because he was coming off a wrist injury and that 2010-11 OSU team might have been one of the four or five most talented groups ever to play at this university.

The same might be said for last year’s team, which advanced all the way to the Final Four on Sullinger’s achy back. Ross played a total of 35 minutes as a rookie on that team, so this season is basically like a redo of his freshman year, especially considering how much time he missed because of the academic situation.

“The initial approach is, ‘I should be out there doing my thing,’ but he’s actually starting to listen and learn,” Smith said of his younger teammate.

“He’s maturing as a player and he’s seeing things he didn’t want to see initially. He’s becoming a better teammate and person all around. It’s helping his game out and it’s helping this team out.”

Ross is shooting 46 percent from the floor as a sophomore and he’s hitting 36 percent of his shots from behind the arc. That’s third-best on the team behind Thomas and Smith, and there’s no question Ross is the one guy who could transform the Buckeyes at the offensive end if he can cut down on his turnovers.

But that’s not where he is focused at the moment.

“It's not just about scoring, 'cause you gotta do stuff on the other end,” Ross said, proving he’s starting to absorb what the coaches have been trying to tell him.

“That is what this team is known for. Me as a player, I think the biggest way I've probably grown is listening. Not even dealing with basketball, but just listening to everything that my coaches try to feed me.”

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