Lenzelle Smith Jr. wasn’t blindsided by the question.
“Is this year’s team good enough to duplicate last year’s success?”
He had heard it before and he knows he’ll hear it again – starting this afternoon when the Buckeyes host their annual media day at Value City Arena – yet, he still paused for a brief moment before proceeding with his answer.
Perhaps Smith wasn’t contemplating whether this year’s Buckeyes have the talent to accomplish a second consecutive trip to the Final Four as much as he was thinking about what he’ll have to provide personally to make that happen.
That’s an immense contrast to the way things have been through the first two years of Smith’s Ohio State career. He’s no longer an underclassman playing in the shadow of more recognizable players, and he’s still figuring out how to play that role.
“That’s a scary thought,” Smith told BSB, reflecting on how his responsibilities will change on and off the court in his junior season. “It’s mentally challenging because this year at the same time I am worrying about how I am doing and what I am doing to help the team out, I also have to worry about the other guys and making sure they’re incorporated and feeling good throughout the day.”
Smith wasn’t ready to formulate thoughts of this year’s Buckeyes making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, specifically because he hasn’t yet been in an organized practice with the entire team under the direction of Thad Matta and the coaching staff.
And as Matta repeatedly drilled home a year ago, Ohio State will perform well against other national powers only if it maintains consistent high-level play in practice.
Before the Buckeyes made their run to the Final Four a year ago, former forward Jared Sullinger said publicly that he wasn’t pleased with the way he and the rest of the Buckeyes had been practicing. Smith paused again when he realized it would be up to him to ensure the team lived up to the standards expected by Matta.
“We are a pretty good team, but it is too early to decide right now whether we’re that good,” Smith said. “A lot of that stuff comes down to what type of team you have when practice starts and how everybody practices every day.
“It isn’t a one-day thing – it is a season full of practices and we have to string those together. Once I get a feel for what this team is going to be practice after practice, then I’ll probably make that decision.”
Add honing leadership skills to Smith’s offseason tasks that include working on better moves to the basket, shooting more proficiently off the dribble and having a bigger scoring mentality.
With the departures of Sullinger and guard William Buford, Smith knows he’s immediately gone from a secondary scoring option to one of the Buckeyes’ primary threats to rack up points.
“Put the ball in the basket,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
There were instances during his sophomore season when Smith showed glimpses of how lethal of a scorer he could be, most notably in OSU’s 80-63 win over Indiana in Value City Arena on Jan. 15. In that game, Smith scored a game-high 28 points and knocked down 4 of 5 attempts from beyond the arc when the Hoosiers left him open to key on the Buckeyes’ more prominent scoring threats.
Smith also came alive in Ohio State’s 77- 70 win over Syracuse in the Elite Eight at Boston’s TD Garden. He scored 18 points and made 3 of 6 attempts from long range, overcoming an injury over his eye that required stitches early in the contest.
But those were just glimpses of what he can do as a scorer since Smith averaged only 6.8 points per game as a starter in all of the Buckeyes’ 39 games.
“I think he was a big key last year, but obviously in a different way,” OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals said. “His role is going to change just like a lot of other guys’ roles are going to change from year to year. Lenzelle has shown the ability to make the three, and we’re definitely going to need him to do that.
“Also, he’s probably our second-best defender, and we’ll ask him to do that as well on the other end. His role will expand a little more offensively. Anytime you go from your sophomore to junior year, you gain that year of experience and the extra workouts and you work on things you weren’t able to do the year before.”
Aside from junior point guard Aaron Craft, Smith stood out as one of the team’s most competent defenders a year ago. He was also a solid rebounder for a guard, averaging 4.6 boards per game. But gone are the safety nets of having Sullinger and Buford on the team, and Smith knows he’ll have to be right next to junior Deshaun Thomas as one of the team’s top scoring threats.
In the past, the coaches have indicated to Smith that they’d like him to concentrate on other facets of the game. This year, he believes he’ll have the green light to make his own decisions on when to shoot the basketball.
“I’ve always wanted the bigger role of having the duties of scoring the ball,” Smith said. “My coaches kept me ground- ed and told me to keep playing defense and locking guys down, and then when my time comes it comes.
“I know this year should be a big year for me, and I think this is when I should show that I am an offensive threat for this team. Not only do I have the challenge of being a lockdown defender, but I also have the challenge of scoring the ball as well.”
Gone are the days where Smith is an overlooked entity in a crowd of other superstars. He’s waited for this moment.
“I have been ready for this for a long time,” he said. “It’s my time.”
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