If statistics told the story of basketball games before they happened, Tom Crean and his Indiana basketball team likely would have been celebrating its second victory over Ohio State in less than a month.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. instead ruined the party.
The statistics were cut and dried for Crean while preparing for Ohio State. He most certainly didn’t expect his defense to be torched by Smith, who entered the game averaging a modest 5.2 points per game.
So the decision was easy for Crean, who told his Hoosiers to stay dedicated to double teaming All-America big man Jared Sullinger in the post, even if it meant leaving some open looks from long range for Smith.
Then 40 minutes of basketball went by, and after a career-high 28 points from Smith, Crean was left shaking his head in the postgame press conference after watching the No. 5 Buckeyes dispatch his team in blowout fashion, 80-63.
“They could win the national championship with that,” Crean responded when asked what kind of team Ohio State becomes when Smith is a consistent scoring threat. “That’s what it comes down to and that’s what they had last year. They had five guys who could score.”
The magnitude of those words goes without saying, as Crean asserted that Smith could be the bridge that takes Ohio State from one of the most talented teams in college basketball to one that has a realistic chance of achieving the ultimate goal of an NCAA Tournament title.
Smith never thought his role would be so vital, particularly offensively. He earned his starting spot at the ultracompetitive shooting guard position before the season because of his ability to grab tough rebounds, play prolific defense and throw in a nice assist every now and then.
Scoring for Smith, at least to head coach Thad Matta, would be only a bonus of playing efficiently in the other aspects of the game.
“I have been hesitant,” Smith admitted about taking shots on the offensive end of the court. “I just want to play perfect basketball and that’s not what basketball is about. I just came out and have been playing my game lately. My team is happy with that, so I am happy as well.”
Smith’s progression at Ohio State has been entirely different than it was during his high school days at Zion (Ill.) Benton. At the prep level, as it is with many high school stars, Smith’s job was to score while game-changing defense was only a feature of his game periodically.
But at Ohio State it has been the exact opposite – defense first and a bucket here or there – and that’s what Crean was banking on. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, Smith made a conscious effort to be more aggressive on the offensive end while understanding that missed field goals don’t necessarily mean his game is imperfect.
“I think once the season started, he found out that guys were going to leave him open and think that he’s the weak link,” sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said. “He’s done a really good job of working hard and understanding if he gets his shot he’s going to take it and he’s going to knock it down for us.”
Smith’s previous season high was 12 points, a total he achieved in Ohio State’s 74-70 loss at Indiana on New Year’s Eve. In that game, the Hoosiers took a similar approach to defending the Buckeyes, leaving Smith open while concentrating on securing the post.
This time when the Indiana defense stuck on Sullinger, Smith was ready for it. Hesitation, as he did so much early in the season, wasn’t a part of his game. The Hoosiers paid dearly for leaving him with open looks, as Smith knocked down 10 of 12 shots from the floor, including four of his five attempts from beyond the arc.
“It as simple as hearing three words from my teammates – shoot the ball,” Smith said. “They’ve been on me lately about shooting the ball and I have great players around me on this team, so when I hear them telling me to shoot the ball and they’re comfortable with that, then I feel comfortable to take those shots and make them.”
Now when opposing head coaches watch film, they’ll see it isn’t an easy choice to simply leave Smith open from long range. Though he didn’t explode offensively at any point earlier in the season the way he did against the Hoosiers, he was already making roughly half of his attempts from beyond the arc. Now, through Jan. 15, Smith is 17 for 32 from long range for a team-best 53.1 percent.
With opposing teams now forced to hesitate with the decision on whether to guard the perimeter or double-team Sullinger, Ohio State can once again put teams in a defensive quandary the way it did with Jon Diebler’s shooting prowess a year ago.
“If they double off Jared and leave me wide open, hopefully I can make shots,” Smith said. “If it’s another guy, hopefully I can help rotate the ball to that guy.”
In the second half, Crean learned his lesson and guarded Smith more closely. That didn’t solve the problem, however, as Sullinger was left with more room to operate in the paint like he had on a consistent basis with Diebler on the perimeter.
Despite scoring only two points off 1-of-5 shooting in the first half against Indiana while Smith was scoring 18, Sullinger scored 14 points in the second half thanks to 6-of-9 shooting.
“The second half, they stopped leaving Lenzelle,” Sullinger said. “The first couple of times I kicked it to Lenzelle, they were still there, so Lenzelle threw it back to me. It’s a two-way street and it worked perfectly in the game plan.”
The second Smith’s good looks went away, the sophomore guard was able to recognize it was time for Sullinger to close out the Hoosiers with the inside game.
“That’s kind of like a coach’s dream when you see it going in because you’re making them pay for the adjustment they’re making,” Matta said.
Now it is a matter of consistency for Smith. The ability to score in bunches has been proven, but whether it will be something Ohio State can count on could make all the difference during a potential run in March.
Ohio State hasn’t gotten much scoring production out of the shooting guard position, which also extends to the lack of productivity from Jordan Sibert off the bench.
If Ohio State can continue to make defenses have to make tough decisions, Crean’s observation could hold true – it could be all the difference between a national title run or an early NCAA Tournament exit.
“Coach Matta brought it to my attention,” Smith said. “He said I was shooting 50 percent and he asked me why I’m not shooting the ball (more often). I asked myself the same question, so I started shooting it. I’m going to continue to try to be aggressive and hopefully it pays off in the long run.”
Follow Me on Twitter and find us on Facebook.