With Deshaun Thomas showing signs of emerging from a lengthy slump in a Feb. 22 victory against Illinois, Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger had a message to those who follow the team.
“Deshaun is a great basketball player,” he said. “We’re just waiting for him to explode again and wait for you all to interview him and ask him how shocked you were about how he played. We know he’s going to be playing well. When you’re all shocked we’re going to be sitting back going, ‘Oh, that’s Deshaun.’ ”
Five days and one game later, Sullinger’s words proved prophetic. Thomas finished with a game-high 22 points as the No. 2 Buckeyes (27-2, 14-2 Big Ten) remained atop the conference with an 82-61 win against visiting Indiana (12-17, 3-13).
“It felt great,” Thomas said. “Every day in practice coach has been on me like, ‘We need you Deshaun. This team needs you.’ I kept my head up, worked hard in practice to help my teammates win ballgames. Today was one of them. I’m proud of myself and proud of my teammates for keeping my head up and staying focused.”
With the win, OSU appears assured of ascending back to the top of the national rankings following No. 1 Duke’s loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday. In addition, it keeps the Buckeyes one game ahead of Purdue in the Big Ten standings after the Boilermakers defeated Michigan State in East Lansing earlier in the afternoon.
Entering the game, however, head coach Thad Matta said the focus was on tightening things up on the defensive end. OSU’s last five opponents had hit on at least half of their shots during a stretch where the Buckeyes went 3-2.
Indiana finished 20 of 52 (38.5 percent) in the loss. For that, Matta credited a new defensive drill he put in this week – one he was taught by OSU alumnus and legendary Hoosiers head coach Bob Knight.
“(The players) hated it,” Matta said.
Thomas wasted no time making his presence felt in this one. Once he was inserted into the game at the 9:30 mark with OSU leading 16-8, the freshman skied for an offensive rebound on his first offensive possession and drew contact with the put-back.
He hit both free throws, and the deluge was on. The Buckeyes outscored the Hoosiers by a 25-13 mark to close the half with Thomas pouring in 16 of those points. Starting with his pair of free throws, the third all-time leading scorer in Indiana prep history scored 14 straight points for his team.
When Thomas scored his 14th straight point, it gave the Buckeyes a 30-13 lead. He went 5 for 5 from the field with a pair of treys and three field goals near the basket and also went 2 of 3 from the charity stripe.
His final basket of the half summed it up. When a pass from the wing was deflected, somehow it found its way into Thomas’ hands and he quickly laid it in with 1:47 remaining to make it 35-18.
Entering the game, Thomas scored 13 points in his previous seven games combined. During the stretch, he went 5 for 25 (20.0 percent) from the field and went scoreless in four contests. It marked Thomas' third game of 20 or more points but his first in Big Ten play.
A product of Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, he was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball as a senior.
He issued a verbal commitment to the Buckeyes as a freshman as the Hoosiers struggled under first-year coach Kelvin Sampson. Thomas then remained silent about his status for several years, but the devastating sanctions levied by the NCAA after Sampson committed several violations helped keep the prepster solid to the Buckeyes.
Although they made an effort to change his mind upon arriving on campus for the 2008-09 season, Crean told BuckeyeSports.com before the season started “that was an open-and-shut door by the time we got here.”
With OSU holding a 38-23 lead at the break, the loudest applause in the second half arguably went to former Buckeyes linebacker A.J. Hawk, who was announced to the crowd during a timeout.
The break was not without some controversy, however. After OSU reserve Jordan Sibert missed a basket while Indiana played physical defense, time expired and Matta began speaking with the officials.
That drew the ire of Indiana head coach Tom Crean, who also remained there.
“I've made this point to (Big Ten associate commissioner in charge of officiating) Rick Boyages before: I don't do it and I don't think coaches should get a free conference with the officials at halftime,” Crean told reporters after the game. “That's happened to us, nothing was done about it, and I wasn't going to stand back and not be a part of that. It's the way that it is. Whether it's gamesmanship, whatever it is, it's the way that it is.
“The half is over. The officials are supposed to be leaving the floor as are the teams, and that's didn't happen. So I stood out there. I mean, no harm, no foul. That's what it is. I'll do it again.”
Said Matta: “He was just wanting to know what I was saying as I would probably want to know what he was saying at that time.”
Three other Buckeyes finished in double figures. Junior guard William Buford had 15 points but just four in the first half while seniors Jon Diebler and David Lighty each added 11. Sullinger was held to a season-low five points, snapping a 17-game streak of reaching double figures.
The forward picked up his first foul at the 17:09 mark and soon headed to the bench. He was re-inserted into the game with 13:53 left and whistled for a foul one second later when he attempted to knock the ball loose from an Indiana player after an inbounds pass.
Buford said it was big for the Buckeyes to keep things going despite playing without Sullinger for much of the game.
“We knew he was in foul trouble so we just wanted to keep playing hard,” he said. “Dallas (Lauderdale) showed up big for us today. He got some blocks and some rebounds.”
The senior forward finished with eight points, six rebounds and a block in 28 minutes of action. It marked the most playing time of the Big Ten season for Lauderdale.
The Buckeyes get right back to action with a road contest Tuesday against Penn State. Matta said the Buckeyes will not fly out to State College until the morning of the game owing to the 9 p.m. tip.