Seeing a player with speed off the dribble, a savvy court presence and confidence with his decision making, Gard thought there was no way this 6-5, 180-pounder didn’t have some college years under his belt.
“I had to do a double take and pull up their roster,” said Gard, “and see if he really was a freshman or if he transferred and where did he come from.”
Much like Frank Kaminsky is to No.6 Wisconsin (27-3, 15-2 Big Ten), Russell has been “Mr. Everything” for No.23 Ohio State (22-8, 11-6), which hosts the Badgers in the regular season finale Sunday afternoon at Value City Arena. A McDonalds All-American last year, Russell leads his team in minutes (33.2), points (19.3) and rebounds (5.8).
“Early in the year I saw him really try to make plays for himself; I think he’s become a much more team-oriented guy,” said Gard. “I think he understands how he can impact the game in other ways than him just scoring.”
What Gard alluded to was Russell’s assists, as the freshman averages 5.3 assists per game and can spin the ball through the tiniest alleys in the middle of a defense.
“He’s just so smooth,” said senior Josh Gasser. “He’s special. He might be the best guard I’ve ever covered in my career, just in watching him. I think he’s that good.”
That’s high praise from Gasser, a two-time Big Ten All-Defensive team selection who has routinely guarded the opposing team’s most dynamic weapon.
“He has the ability to pass, to score in any facet,” Gasser continued. “His ability to shoot off the bounce, step-backs…If you’re on him he doesn’t really care, he’s still going to knock it down. He’s going to be a handful for us.”
A near-lock for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Russell has shown his scoring can come in bunches and can provide a tremendous lift.
After shooting 40 percent or less in four straight games, Russell went 9 of 19 (47 percent) for 28 points in a come-from-behind win over Purdue Sunday. Then 8 of 16 (50 percent) and 28 more in Wednesday's comeback win over Penn State, hitting that mark after missing four of his first five shots and three of his nine attempts in the first half.
He’s scored in double figures in 29 of 30 games, had 20+ 14 times and turned the Buckeyes around offensively.
Last season, Ohio State’s offense was ranked 128th in the country in offensive efficiency on kenpom.com. This season, they’re No. 17 with Russell attempting 24.7 percent of the team’s shots and scoring 25.1 of its points.
“His ability to play off contact, to get hit and finish three-point plays, he’s quick enough where you can’t crowd him,” said Gard of Russell, who already has one triple-double to his name with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a win at Rutgers. “Teams have tried to play him a few different ways. He’s good enough with the ball that he can get you rocking back and then get good shots off pretty quick. He’s the real deal.”
The only comparison point Wisconsin can make is to Penn State senior guard D.J. Newbill. Newbill twice scored 29 points this season against the Badgers, shooting 61.5 percent with only four turnovers in 77 minutes.
Rarely stationary, the Buckeyes will give Russell the ball at the point, run him off screens and will even post him up. And with his ability to pass the basketball efficiency and effectively from all areas, Russell has made plenty of teams pay for trying to collapse on him.
Now, it’s Wisconsin’s turn to have a crack at him.
“He’s a great player; he does everything for them,” said Kaminsky. “He passes the ball, he rebounds, he scores points. It’s never easy to stop a player like that, so we just have to find a weakness in his game, if there is any at all, and try to exploit it. We know it’s going to take all 40 minutes to stop him and all five guys on the court and the best effort from all five guys on the court and try to neutralize him.”