January 16, 2013

Buckeyes looking for a second scorer

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Of the few certainties that exist on this season's Ohio State basketball team, one thing is sure: Deshaun Thomas[db] is going to get his.

The Buckeyes' junior forward is averaging a team-high 20.3 points per game, and has led OSU in scoring in 13 of its 16 games this season. A preseason All-American, it'd be hard to argue that Thomas isn't living up to- if not surpassing- the standards he set for himself in last season's NCAA Tournament, where he averaged 19.2 points in the Buckeyes' five games.

Behind the Fort Wayne, Ind native, however, is where the real questions about this year's OSU squad exist. Despite having a talented roster comprised of four star prospects and McDonald's High School All-Americans alike, coach [db]Thad Matta is yet to witness a single player step up as a consistent weapon alongside Thomas, who has been left to shoulder the load that was left by NBA first round pick Jared Sullinger and the program's third all-time leading scorer, William Buford.

That doesn't mean that some Buckeyes haven't shown flashes this season. In fact, five OSU players have stepped up as either the Buckeyes' second or leading scorer in games this season. Perhaps that's what's most frustrating to Matta, who knows that the talent to aide Thomas is there, but thus far, the consistency has not.

Statistically, OSU's second best scorer this season has been Lenzelle Smith Jr., who has averaged 10.3 points per game this year. With a team best 42.2 percent 3-point shooting percentage, Smith has reached double-digit scoring figures in nine games this season, but has also disappeared in some contests, scoring six or fewer points in five of this year's contests.

Following his 17-point performance in the Buckeyes' Jan. 2 win over Nebraska, Matta admitted that his team is at its best when Smith is at his.

"It definitely helps because it opens things up for us," Matta said. "Just having another guy out there that is making shots and penetrating and driving and kicking. I just think that opens up the floor so much more for us."

Behind Smith on the OSU scoring list sits Aaron Craft with 8.9 points per game, which is a testament to both his highs and lows this season.

The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year got off to a hot start offensively this season, leading the Buckeyes with a 20-point effort in their opener against Albany, and reaching double-digit figures in scoring in four of their first four games. The junior guard, however, hit a shooting slump in the middle of OSU's out-of-conference schedule as he averaged just five points per game in six contests from Dec. 1-Dec. 22.

After going scoreless in the Buckeyes' Big Ten opener against Nebraska, Craft has found his stroke in OSU's past three games, scoring 11, 15, and nine points respectively in games against Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan. Following his 15-point effort on 6-of-7 shooting against the Boilermakers, Matta said that it was nice to see one of his much-relied upon players regain some confidence.

"I was so excited for him to see the ball go in. His reads were really, really good," Matta said. "I'd love to have that every night."

While Smith and Craft have proven to be the Buckeyes two most relatively reliable scorers behind Thomas, perhaps the one with the most potential sits fourth on the OSU scoring list, in the form of LaQuinton Ross.

Averaging 8.2 points in just 17.2 minutes per game, the sophomore forward has shown flashes of being every bit as capable of a scorer as Thomas, but not else much. The 6-foot-8 perimeter player scored 22 points in the Buckeyes' Dec. 1 win over Northern Kentucky- the most points scored by an OSU player other than Thomas all season. The Buckeyes' leading scorer says he sees a lot of himself in Ross, who he gave a vote of confidence to when asked which player behind him has the best ability to score on a consistent basis.

"He's a great scorer, he's versatile out there, he's a mismatch nightmare just like me," Thomas said of Ross. "He can be that type of guy that can be that second scorer and help us when we need a big play or a big shot, because a lot of teams are going to be keying on me, so he just needs to be ready and have confidence when the ball is swung to him."

With the meat of their Big Ten schedule remaining, the Buckeyes will need for one of their secondary scorers to step up sooner than later. Matta agreed that a reliable second offensive option is one of the key ingredients missing from his team, but also said there's a balance that needs to be struck in asking his players to do too much.

"This isn't open gym now. There's going be help defense, they're going to load the box, there's going to be shot blockers. So you have to elevate what you're doing, your execution, those types of things," Matta said. "I haven't gone and specifically said, 'I need you to do this' because then they'll automatically think I need them to get shots off."


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