The Buckeyes dispatched Wyoming by a somewhat flattering 65-50 scoreline at Value City Arena on Monday night, but – much like their other victories this season – there were some bumps along the way. The Cowboys hung around, trailing by four at halftime, and used a 9-1 run out of the break to take a four-point lead.
Enter Aaron Craft, OSU's ace defender and senior guard who didn't attempt a shot in the opening 20 minutes. Craft's back-to-back layups restored Ohio State's lead, and the hosts never trailed again.
"We haven't played as well as we want to, but it's only November," Craft said. "We are five games in, and there is still a lot of basketball to be played."
He was speaking about the team as a whole, but he might as well have been describing junior forward LaQuinton Ross. The Jackson, Miss., native opened the campaign with a double-double against Morgan State and followed that up with 10 points against Ohio.
His 14-point, 11-rebound effort against the Bears drew heavy praise from Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who noted that improving Ross' rebounding (2.9 boards per game as a sophomore) had been an off-season priority.
"We knew we were losing a great rebounder in DeShaun and one of the things we've questioned about this team is where the rebounding is going to come from," Matta said in the postgame press conference following the Morgan State win. "I thought (Ross) did a very nice job of rebounding out of his area, and we're going to need that from him."
In the most recent three games, however, Ross hasn't come close to living up to the lofty preseason expectations that included spots on both the Naismith Award Watch List and Wooden Award Top 50 List. As Ohio State knocked off Marquette, American and Wyoming, Ross combined for just seven total points on 2-for-20 shooting from the field. He followed up his 11-rebound debut by snagging a combined 11 rebounds in his next four games. On Monday, his only rebound came off his own miss, which led to his only basket of the game on the putback attempt.
After a 1-for-7 shooting performance against the Cowboys, Matta acknowledged that the 6-8, 220-lb junior would need to find a way to play better in order for the Buckeyes to reach their full potential.
"LaQuinton has to trust himself," Matta said. "We're going to get LaQuinton Ross to play better basketball. We'll get him to play at the level that he's capable of playing at. I'm not going to leave his side on that. I think from the standpoint of, as I look at the future of this team, I need Q to be playing.
"You know, a lot of it is just kind of getting into the flow, getting into the synergy of what we're doing, not fighting things, probably more mentally than physically. We'll find a way to get him playing."
Matta plans on backing up his talk about getting Ross going. Despite the fact that Ross finished with the only negative +/- rating on the team (-10, while substitute Sam Thompson finished at +16) against Wyoming, the OSU coach said he had no intentions of altering the starting lineup for Friday's contest against North Florida.
When it comes down to needing to win the game, however, Matta has been far less patient. Ross sat the final 13:07 of the second half at Marquette, 14:03 against American and 15:27 against Wyoming.
For now, he has the backing of his teammates, who have seen him struggle at times but also play well in big moments.
"You know, LaQuinton's a competitor," Craft said. "He's been through the battles and he's a guy that came in and thought he was going to have an opportunity to play right away. Then some things happened and circumstances kind of took over, and he's been through this. He's been through the ups and downs.
"I think the best thing right now is that we're winning. We're finding ways to win without him having great games. When we come along – when he comes along – that's just going to make us that much better."