Deshaun Thomas stood in front of his locker in the bowels of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He flashed his typical wide smile – it was even broader this time – as he patiently waited for the droves of sports reporters sure to surround him with questions.
Thomas knew they were coming. He just finished a 22-point performance while helping lead Ohio State to a 77-55 win over Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
It happened in the same building where he won two high school state titles with Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Leurs in 2008 and 2009. But this performance was about the future – he was lighting up the scoreboard in an NBA arena in front of a conference tournament crowd that made it feel like he has already playing in the next level.
“No comment,” Thomas quickly responded, as if he was prepared for the inevitable question regarding his thoughts on his future and the NBA. “Right now, at this stage, I love these guys right here. I want to have a great year with them and worry only about the things we can control right now. We want to win a national championship.”
As the stage continues to grow, Thomas’ desire for big performances goes with it. In Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State the following day in the conference tournament championship, Thomas’ called for the ball on most possessions, even when he wasn’t open.
Sometimes he got it, others he didn’t. When the ball didn’t touch his hands, his emotional letdown could be felt by anyone within earshot. Even though he didn’t shoot particularly well from the floor – he finished the game with 11 points off 4-of-12 shooting – Thomas didn’t want to let any moment slip away.
“When you’re a scorer it is only right that you want the ball in your hand,” sophomore big man Jared Sullinger said. “Deshaun understands that.”
Given Thomas’ quick release and his reputation for shooting whenever he gets the urge – good look or not – it’s quite the testament that the sophomore has become one of Ohio State’s biggest defensive assets.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta used to call him Sean because “he had no D in his game.” Matta, though, is back to calling him Deshaun, noting his immense growth on the defensive end.
Thomas’ improved mentality isn’t as noticeable as his offensive spurts, which come in the more exciting form of knocking down outside shots or pulling down offensive rebounds in traffic and putting them back in.
Ohio State lost to the Spartans, a game where the Buckeyes’ could have potentially earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament had they won. They didn’t, but Matta noticed growth out of Thomas that could be crucial if the Buckeyes plan to make it past the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
“Defensively, he’s really a prideful kid – I’ve learned that about him,” Matta said. “The one thing I saw out of Deshaun that I was most pleased with (against MSU) was he had some open looks that didn’t go down for him, but man did he keep defending. That was a huge step in the right direction.”
Like Thomas did all season during the grueling 21-game Big Ten schedule, he was assigned to Michigan State’s best player. That player was Draymond Green – the Big The Player of the Year – and the Spartans senior finished the game with 12 points.
His experience defending players like Northwestern’s John Shurna, Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, or Green may be the reason for his dramatic defensive growth. Ohio State hopes that serves as preparation as the team starts its trek in the NCAA Tournament Thursday against Loyola (Md.) in Pittsburgh.
“Everybody talks about how his shot wasn’t falling, but if you look on the defensive end he did a tremendous job on Draymond,” Sullinger said. “I thought that was really tremendous. He was just playing his game and sometimes the shot doesn’t fall, but the best thing he did was go on the other end and keep defending.”
Thomas is probably the third scoring option for the Buckeyes, behind Sullinger and senior William Buford. If that’s fact, Thomas doesn’t know it. There's going to be a big shot in a crucial moment and the sophomore is going to shoot it.
That desire was tangible in the Big Ten Tournament. Now the stage the Buckeyes will be playing on for the coming weeks, though not quite the NBA, is as big as it gets in college basketball.
Sullinger, who is susceptible to foul trouble, and Buford, who has been inconsistent in his senior season, are far from sure things. Thomas could be the difference if either falters.
If anything, he wants to be.
“I want to make plays for my team,” Thomas said. “I want to come through when they need me the most and hopefully that will help us accomplish our goals. If anything, I’ll be ready to go.”
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