College Basketball Team Reports: Ohio State Buckeyes
The biggest shot of LaQuinton Ross' career was a long time coming. The 6-foot-8 forward sat out the first two months of his freshman year because of academic problems and wound up playing a total of 35 minutes in 2011-12. Ross' role fluctuated last season until his breakout NCAA performance, which included games of 17, 17 and 19 points -- highlighted by a pick-and-pop three-pointer with two seconds remaining to push Ohio State past Arizona 73-70 and into the Elite Eight.
Ross' ascent comes at just the right time: All-Big Ten forward Deshaun Thomas left Columbus early for the NBA, taking his conference-leading 19.8 points per game with him. A Jackson, Miss., native, Ross is likely not only to step into Thomas's position at the four spot but also to fill his role as the go-to source for offense. "He can score in the post; he can drive it; he can shoot threes," says coach Thad Matta. "He's really become more unselfish in terms of driving and kicking" -- playmaking abilities that will force defenses to think twice about double-teaming Ross.
Senior point guard Aaron Craft, renowned for his lockdown defense, spent the summer tinkering with his shot -- keeping his right elbow in, improving fluidity -- in hopes of regaining the 37.7 percent three-point mark he had as a freshman. (He hit only 30.0 percent of his treys last season.) More production will have to come from senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. and junior forward Sam Thompson. Both will seek to make their occasional scoring outbursts -- such as Smith's 21 points on six field goal attempts against Nebraska or Thompson's 16 points on seven shots at Penn State -- more common. "Almost everybody on this team has shown they can have a big-numbers game," Matta says. "Everybody's gonna have to do a little bit more."
Outside of a trip to Marquette and a holiday-season trip to meet Notre Dame in New York, the Buckeyes likely won't face much resistance until the usual Big Ten gantlet begins on New Year's Eve. The regular-season finale against Michigan State could decide the conference crown.
While Craft has long been recognized -- and creatively quantified -- for his disruptive defense, the 6-1 Scott began getting his due last season as the other half of the Buckeyes' harassive backcourt duo. Scott recorded three steals or more eight times last season, including four swipes in Ohio State's 67-58 upset at then-No. 2 Indiana on March 5. Yet given his somewhat limited minutes, raw totals only hint at Scott's effectiveness: According to KenPom.com, his 5.1 percent steal rate last season ranked eighth nationally. Ross, his roommate and frequent Mario Kart competitor, says Scott improved his shot over the summer, while Matta offers the kind of compliments a coach appreciates most. "He's been as steady as he can possibly be," says Matta. "He's using his athleticism on both ends of the floor. He's more aggressive, which I'm very happy to see come into fruition."
The average Big Ten rank in steal percentage of Scott (5.1 percent, first) and Craft (3.8 percent, third) last season, despite Craft's rate being the lowest of his three-year career.
SI.com: What kind of impact do you think the new rules will have?
Thad Matta: I'll be honest, I don't know yet. I'm not trying to avoid the question, but we scrimmaged last Saturday and I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to say to my guys. That's why I think everybody's kind of in agreement. We've gotta see how this thing plays out and then adjust along the lines. I've been forthcoming with the guys: 'I don't know exactly what to tell you except don't touch somebody.' That's something that we're gonna have to do a great job of as a staff is really identifying and trying to figure out the right things to say because we've always been a team that predominantly doesn't foul. We've hung our hat on that. We show every foul that we commit because we don't wanna foul. It's gonna be interesting to see how it plays out. It really is.
SI.com: What do you make of the Big Ten landscape entering the year?
TM: This is year 10 for me and honestly I think it's gonna be just like the nine previous years. You hope you hit your stride at the right time. You hope you stay injury free. You've got great players, you've got great coaches, you've got great fans. Honestly when you get into the Big Ten, you just sort of strap it on and it's like hey, here we go. You know there's gonna be some ups and downs to it, but by the same token you've gotta keep your eye on your own team and understand how to get them to play their best basketball every night they take the floor -- because if they don't, you've got no shot.
SI.com: With Evan Ravenel's graduation being a hit to your depth inside, might we see more of a smaller lineup at times?
TM: I think that Amir (Williams) and Trey (McDonald) have really shown us some good things. I've been very, very pleased with Trey McDonald's progress in terms of how he's developed in his time here. And Amir has shown throughout segments of the preseason that he belongs out there -- he's making an impact both offensively and defensively. But I think the small lineup was something that we ran at times last year and it was effective for us, so we'll definitely have that in our packages of what we're trying to do.