Deshaun Thomas Makes Buckeyes Legit Contenders
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thad Matta isn’t big on preseason rankings.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Not when his team is trying to replace All-American big man Jared Sullinger, not to mention senior William Buford, one of the more prolific scorers in school history.
His team is young, with Boston College transfer Evan Ravanel representing the entire senior class by himself, but it’s not a group dominated by freshmen like some of Matta’s teams in the past.
Amedeo Della Valle, a skinny, mop-headed Italian kid who came to Columbus by way of Findlay Prep High School in Nevada, is the only newcomer on the roster. That in and of itself is a rarity, especially for Matta, but Ohio State’s coach is already calling his freshman sharp-shooter one of the smartest basketball players he has on the team.
The guy who still holds the top spot in that department is junior point guard Aaron Craft. After helping Sullinger and Buford guide the Buckeyes to the Final Four a year ago, Craft is now a household name in college basketball.
Photo by Jim Davidson
He’s also the leader of this team, and the guy who represents everything Matta is looking for out of this basketball team, which is going to have to earn everything it gets, including that No. 4 ranking in the preseason USA Today/Coaches’ Poll.
“When you lose two great scorers, it is difficult,” Matta said during Ohio State’s media day in Columbus.
“Our defense has to be really good. We will need to generate some easy baskets. But one thing I have also seen is that everybody across the board skillwise has gotten a lot better. It seems like we are shooting the ball better and our ballhandling appears to be better.”
The three guys who have to make the biggest jump in both of those areas this season are all sophomores. Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott gave Matta some good minutes off the bench last season as freshmen, but the guy this team may be counting on more than anyone right now is big man Amir Williams.
If the Buckeyes are going to be anywhere near as good as the last three teams Matta has coached – all three of which advanced at least to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament – all three of those guys are likely going to have play, and play well.
Thompson appears, at the moment, to be the only starter in that group, but Scott and Williams are both candidates for the most improved player on the roster. Another guy who could be in that conversation is ballyhooed sophomore LaQuinton Ross.
Matta was hoping to have Ross as a part of that Final Four run a year ago, but he was forced to leave the team until December because of academic issues with his high school transfer.
When he got back, there simply wasn’t enough time to get Ross up to the speed at which his teammates were playing by that point in the season, but almost everyone around the program agrees that his potential is limitless.
While he may not even start for the Buckeyes, at least early in the year, Ross will be counted upon to help replace some of the scoring (32 points a night) Ohio State lost in Sullinger and Buford.
Matta also lost a pair of seldom-used transfers in Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon this offseason, and he was closer than anyone would like to remember to losing the one guy who could make this team a legitimate contender in what appears to be a down year for college basketball.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“It was close,” junior Deshaun Thomas said with that now-familiar smile on his face.
“It was going through my mind after the season because I had a great season. It was very close. But I sat back in my room and made my decision by myself. I think I made a perfect decision to come back and get better and improve what I can do.”
After playing very little as a high-profile freshman in 2010-11, Thomas emerged as one of Ohio State’s top scoring threats a year ago. The former Indiana Mr. Basketball was second on the team in scoring (15.9) and rebounding (5.4) as a sophomore, while shooting 52 percent from the floor and nearly 35 percent from behind the arc.
Those numbers skyrocketed in the tournament, where he averaged nearly 22 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in the four contests leading up to Ohio State’s loss to Kansas down in New Orleans.
“At the end of the season last year, Jared and Deshaun were probably playing basketball together as well as anybody in the country,” Matta said.
“It will be a little bit of an adjustment.”
With opponents focused squarely on Sullinger, a two-time All-American who averaged close to a double-double for his entire two-year career at OSU, Thomas was free to roam wherever he could find open spots in the defense.
That’s probably not going to happen very often now that Sullinger is wearing green and white.
“I’m pretty sure in the Big Ten it will be different,” Thomas said.
“I saw how they played Jared last year. This year, I will probably get some of that with people coming over the top or underneath to double team me. This team is something special. We have a lot of tools with LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith. It will be hard to double-team somebody when those guys can put up big numbers as well.”
Matta is going to have to rely on guys like Ross, Thompson and even Smith, who came on strong during the NCAA Tournament, to hit enough open jump shots that it forces teams to defend all five guys on the floor.
That was not always the case last season, when Sullinger, Thomas and Buford often drew multiple defenders on the same play. There weren’t enough guys who could score the basketball when called upon, but the guy who really has to take his game to another level is Thomas, and not just as a scorer.
“For Deshaun, he’s made himself more athletic,” Matta said.
“He seems to be more of a well-rounded player. That’s something we have always wanted him to understand all the other things you can do besides scoring. We will have to move him around and make him as effective inside and outside as we can.”
Thomas has a natural ability to score the ball. He’s also very effective around the basket as an offensive rebounder, but the Fort Wayne, Ind. product has to add some other elements to his game if this team is going to be as effective as it can be in Matta’s mind.
“He’s making himself a complete player. That’s one of the things we have challenged him this off-season to do,” Matta said of his star junior.
“We know he is going to score. The other things, when you look late in the season last year he had more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds. We need him to defensive rebound the basketball this year. He has to go and get the ball for us.”
Ultimately, however, this Ohio State team will only go as far as Deshaun Thomas can take them with his ability at the offensive end of the floor.
“I feel great because, by coming back, I have gotten better,” Thomas said.
“By me coming back this summer and working out with Coach (Chris) Jent, I am excited about my improvement. I think the sky is the limit and some special things can happen.”
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