Look in the Mirror Pushed Buckeyes to Become More Complete Team
By Brandon Castel
LOS ANGELES — There have been a number of defining moments during his winding, topsy-turvy basketball season that have led Thad Matta and the Ohio State Buckeyes to this moment.
Back to the Sweet 16.
On the doorstep of the Elite Eight, and with who they will play in the next round, likely the Final Four.
They face a dangerous 6-seed in Arizona on Thursday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It won’t be easy, especially against someone who knows Matta as well as Wildcats’ coach Sean Miller.
Photo by Jim Davidson
The best thing going for the 2-seeded Buckeyes right now is the fact they don’t have to rely solely on Deshaun Thomas to carry them the rest of the way.
“That’s what we’ve been looking for all year, and when we get that second, third or fourth guy doing that, we’re pretty good,” OSU assistant Jeff Boals told The-Ozone.
“I think the way we’re playing right now, with a lot of confidence, our three guys off the bench are giving us something different. When those guys started playing well is when we kind of took off.”
Sophomore LaQuinton Ross has suddenly become a dangerous weapon for the Buckeyes off the bench. He scored 27 points in three games during Ohio State’s Big Ten Tournament championship run in Chicago, and this past weekend he dropped 17 points during a three-point win over Iowa State in the round of 32.
But it’s not just Ross and the others guys off the bench. Ohio State has found scoring from a number of different guys in the NCAA Tournament. One night it’s Ross, the next night it’s Aaron Craft or Sam Thompson or Lenzelle Smith.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“It's been great, everyone really kind of taking to heart what they need to do for this team to be successful,” said Craft, who is coming off a game where he struggled down the stretch before hitting the game-winning three in the final second.
“Whether it's Shannon (Scott) coming off the bench, bringing us energy off the defensive end, LaQuinton coming in and making big shots, it's been great for our team as a whole, and it's helped us to grow a lot.”
Without that growth, in particular, the Buckeyes are probably not sitting where they are today. They certainly don’t get past Michigan State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament with Thomas shooting 12-of-38 in the semis and finals at the United Center.
They probably don’t win the last five games of the regular season either, with the way Thomas had been shooting the ball in the months of February and March.
“Probably at the beginning of the season if I wasn’t shooting well, we would be in big trouble,” Thomas admitted this postseason.
“Now this team is showing a lot of confidence in itself. Craft, LaQuinton Ross, everybody is knocking down shots. You need a whole team together. You can’t have that one dimensional player to do it all by himself, you need a whole team to succeed.”
That was point was hammered home during Ohio State’s 59-56 loss to Michigan State in East Lansing back on the 19th of January. It was a game the Buckeyes easily could have won, especially with Thomas putting up career numbers on the road.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“It was sort of a look yourself in the mirror type of game,” sophomore Sam Thompson said.
“D.T. had 28 points and our next leading scorer had six. When there’s that type of disparity between leading scorers, you can’t win like that. We knew we had to get him some help at the offensive end and I think we’ve done that.”
The Buckeyes knew something had to change after that game, which ended with Shannon Scott misfiring from well behind the arc with seven seconds still on the game clock. Thomas probably should have gotten a look at the end after hitting six threes at the Breslin Center, but that wasn’t the biggest concern after the game.
There was no reason Ohio State should be in that position to begin with when they are getting a scoring performance for the ages from their star player. So Craft called a team meeting to let Thomas know he wasn’t alone, despite what the box score might have said that night.
“It’s been a growing process all year. One of the biggest games I can remember is when we played up at Michigan State and Deshaun had about 50 percent of our points,” Craft said.
“We talked to each other and told D.T. to keep doing what he’s doing, ‘we’re going to get guys to help you. We’re going to get there eventually.’ ”
Even now, Thomas remembers that conversation after the loss in East Lansing quite well.
“Aaron Craft said, ‘we’re going to help you Deshaun. We’re going to help you, just believe in us and trust us,’ ” Thomas shared recently.
“I said, ‘I believe in you. I see you guys every day in practice. I believed in my teammates. I knew somebody was going to step up and be a big part of this team with me.”
Even after that meeting, there was no guarantee when “eventually” was going to happen. Craft and Thompson were both struggling with their jump shot at the time, and Thad Matta had yet to find the kind of confidence in Ross that he has shown in the postseason.
Matta was quickly running out of options at the offensive end, but things started to change when Craft dropped 21 on the Spartans during their next meeting in Columbus. Suddenly the offense had a capable No. 2 weapon to compliment Thomas, who had been in a shooting slump every since that breakout performance at Michigan State.
The next game, it was Lenzelle Smith dropping 24 points during a 10-point road win at Northwestern. Craft would come back with 15 points in a huge upset against No. 2-ranked Indiana in Bloomington, and he followed it up with 14 in the regular-season finale against Illinois.
“It’s not just me,” Craft was quick to add.
“It’s LaQuinton off the bench, it’s Shannon getting easy baskets in transition, and Sam. Just everyone coming into their own and taking advantage of the opportunities because D.T. is out there on the floor.”
Sam Thompson scored 19 points against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament and then posted 20 points and 10 rebounds during Ohio State’s opening round win against Iona in the NCAA Tournament.
All of that has only helped to open the floor for Thomas, who is starting to get some of the looks he saw during a fantastic postseason run a year ago.
“We’ve always had confidence in ourselves and the other guys in the locker room,” Thompson said.
“We know what LaQuinton can do, Lenzelle, Shannon, myself, Aaron Craft. Amir (Williams) and Evan (Ravenel) down low. We’ve always known we had the personnel to win without D.T. scoring a lot of baskets and we showed it.”
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