Thomas' Maturity Evident In Breakout

Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas has been one of the breakout stories of the NCAA Tournament, leading the Buckeyes' offensive attack and boosting his NBA draft stock in the process. But it's his work as a more complete player that has made both Thomas and the Buckeyes successful.

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He's the NCAA Tournament's leading scorer and maybe its breakout star, a natural scorer who was such a liability in other ways as a freshman a year ago that his Sweet 16 appearance was limited to three minutes, one shot and one rebound.

Fast forward a year and the only thing limiting Deshaun Thomas' productivity is the fact that there's only one basketball on the floor. An older, lighter, wiser and more complete player is playing multiple roles for Ohio State and playing them well. Except for a run late in Thursday's regional semifinal win over Cincinnati dominated by Jared Sullinger, Thomas has been the most dominant Buckeye on the floor.

Ohio State is still known nationally as Sullinger's team. Aaron Craft is still the fearless, baby-faced point guard loved by all except those he's guarding. Senior William Buford is the fourth-leading scorer in Ohio State history.

Lately, though, the Buckeyes have been in top form and Thomas has been the guy getting the most buckets.

"People are starting to notice now what Deshaun can bring to the table," Thomas said Friday, and since he's clearly not scared to attack three defenders, what's wrong with a little third person?

Saturday night, his ability to score both inside and out — and his uncanny ability to score in the air around the rim on putbacks — will be key to Ohio State's chances of beating top-seeded Syracuse in the East Regional final. If you're going to attack a zone defense, it's never bad to have a multi-talented player like the 6-foot-7 Thomas to do it.

Just ask Thomas.

A bully around the basket who's also developed a more consistent outside stroke, Thomas has scored 75 points through three NCAA Tournament games, starting with 31 against Loyola-Maryland last week. He had 20 of his 26 points vs. Cincinnati in the regional semifinals in the first half.

As impressive as his 25-point-per-game tournament average is, it's maybe more impressive that he's done it while shooting 56 percent from the field, is 6-of-12 on 3-point shots in the last two games and is averaging 8.7 rebounds in the tournament.

"He came in with the mentality to score, and in the two years he's been here we've talked a lot to him about the so many other ways he can affect our team in a positive way," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "Defensively, now he's to the point of just playing and reacting. Last week (vs. Gonzaga) there was a point where he had a hot hand and he had (a good look).

"But he kicked it to (Buford) for a wide-open shot and I kind of said to myself, ‘He's arrived.' He understands. It's been a pleasure."

It's been impressive, too, and Thomas said he sometimes even impresses himself.

"Especially getting those long rebounds and then tipping it back in," he said. "I've been doing that for the longest."

Thomas is almost 20 pounds lighter this year than he was as a freshman, but he's still naturally strong. While many talented freshmen struggle to adjust to the speed and physicality of the college game, Thomas found himself stuck behind older, more experienced players used to playing team ball and excellent half-court defense. Coming off the bench and having to defer — "pass" was most certainly a four-letter word — was quite an adjustment.

"(The adjustment was) being ready, staying focused, and at first last year I wasn't," Thomas said. "Now, I've added more to my game. Teams are like, ‘Oh, we can't let Deshaun get hot, we can't let him post up, we can't let him do this.' It feels great for me, people knowing that, because it makes me more hyped and more ready."

Opposing scouting reports still say he's coming in looking to shoot, but they now go deeper, too.

When Thomas checked into Ohio State's regional semifinal last year vs. Kentucky, he launched one shot — and it missed everything.

"Coach put me on the bench after that air ball," he said. "That's part of being a freshman. You come in knowing you're not going to play the minutes you want so I just felt like, Hey, I'm going to get this shot up. It's the NCAA Tournament.

"I just care all about winning now. Once we make it to that Promised Land we want to make, we'll all get love."

Thomas's first — and only — love was scoring, and he says that goes back to his early days as a basketball player. He said he had a 44-point, 33-rebound and 11-block game in middle school and that his career-high in high school was 52.

"It was about fourth grade. I was just scoring the ball, shooting, throwing up any kind of shots — hook shots, throw it off the backboard, it would go in.

"Fourth grade, that's when I knew I was going to be special."

Thomas smiles when he says these things, not because he thinks he's being funny but because he knows he's being genuine.

"My confidence is high," he said. "It's just knowing to be patient and not force shots, knowing where the right spots (are) and knocking ‘em down. Once I hit a couple, it's just going to be a long night. I just feel so comfortable and confident knocking down the next one.

"I love to score. I'm sorry."

A few weeks ago, Thomas made reference to "Deshaun's World" when talking about one of his hot streaks. On Friday, he said it sometimes feels like "Deshaun's Show, just like they say on (TV)."

That basketball has always been Deshaun's Show is a big part of what made last year so personally frustrating for Thomas. He was the seventh man in what was essentially a 6.5-man rotation, a designated gunner used in spurts — spurts that became longer only when he immediately heated up at the offensive end and didn't make a mental mistake at the defensive end.

"For me, not playing (last year) was the hardest part," Thomas said. "Coming from a high school that played me every minute and touching the ball every time and having that green light, that was very hard not playing. I wanted to be out there."

The third-leading scorer in Indiana high school basketball history, Thomas had pretty much committed to Matta and Ohio State before ever playing a game at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers. One he got there, he said "the coaches had the ball in my hands 110 percent of the time. That's what I do."

It's what he's done since fourth grade, and 10 years later he's playing a starring role on a team that's one game from the Final Four.

"Every kid's dream," he said.

And one he's going to keep — literally — shooting for.

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