Deshaun Thomas had just scored a career-high 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Ohio State’s 78-59 win over Loyola (Md.) in the Buckeyes’ NCAA Tournament opener.
Through all the offensive rebounds, put-backs and swished jump shots Thomas had to put together for one of the best individual performances of his career, Thad Matta singled out his lone assist as the best play of the game.
The sophomore had the chance to get a good shot off from beyond the arc in the corner, but instead dished it off to senior William Buford, who knocked down 3-pointer on a considerably better look.
“I would have taken the first shot last year,” Thomas said laughing.
It’s no wonder Matta was most impressed with that individual play. Thomas’ decision to create a better shot for his teammate was defined proof of the dramatic individual growth he’s experienced in two seasons.
That’s why Thomas has slowly gone from being Ohio State’s X-Factor to a player the Buckeyes are counting on to propel them to the programs first Final Four appearance since the 2006-07 season.
“I said I was worried about Deshaun Thomas,” Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos said after his team was torched by the sophomore. “Jimmy doesn’t just bar tend (a job he held while a Maryland assistant in the 1990s). He knows basketball, too.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few likely didn’t have to watch film on Ohio State to develop a game plan for competing with the No. 2 Buckeyes – containing Jared Sullinger has been the universal plan of attack in slowing them all season.
Perhaps Few showed his Bulldogs tape from Ohio State’s games against Michigan State. The Spartans, who beat the Buckeyes in two of three meetings this year, defended Sullinger better than any team did all season.
Michigan State’s game plan was to throw as many big bodies at Sullinger as possible, hoping to either wear down him down, force him to become impatient and frustrated, or get him into foul trouble.
Gonzaga would like to do the same, but the Bulldogs saw the Buckeyes’ opening tournament victory over the Greyhounds. Watching the game live revealed a realization about Ohio State that may not have been true a year ago.
“I think (Thomas) should be a focal point in our game plan,” Gonzaga forward Sam Dower said. “If you can go off for 30 like that, obviously he should be a focal point. There aren’t a lot of guys in college basketball that can do that. He is just as good as Sullinger, really. From what I saw, Thomas is as good of a scorer as Sullinger, if not better.”
That would have been debatable a month ago.
Thomas has come a long way from the quick-shooting freshman prone to making defensive mistakes. Perhaps the best offensive rebounder in the country this year, Thomas has also dramatically improved his defensive presence.
But it is his offensive repertoire that makes the game fun. He wants to score, regardless of whether it is an outside shot or a dunk. Because he can either post up inside or knock down jumpers from the wing, Thomas has all of a sudden become one of the toughest matchups for opponents hoping to keep the Buckeyes’ offense at bay.
“That’s something Deshaun has really added to his game,” Matta said. “He’s got the inside, he’s got the outside and as we’ve seen over the course of the past three weeks, he’s starting to put the ball on the floor and get inside defenses.”
The matchup of the game still should be Sullinger and Gonzaga center Robert Sacre, a long 7-footer. Sullinger has had the reputation of struggling against defenders that have the size advantage, which should give Few reason for confidence when drawing up the matchups.
But who is going to account for Thomas? That question becomes increasingly relevant because he’s playing perhaps the most consistent basketball of his life. A year ago, a 30-point game was a flash in the pan. Right now it is looking like a trend.
“This is my month,” Thomas said. “This is the moment I’ve been waiting for my entire life. I am going to make sure I don’t let it go by me.”
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