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Deshaun Thomas’ 4th grade love affair elevates Buckeyes in NCAA Tournament

Cody Cousino / Photo editor

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BOSTON – Deshaun Thomas and scoring have had a love affair dating back to when he was in the fourth grade.

At a gym in his native state of Indiana, he was just shooting around. Hook shots, bank shots, long shots and short shots – they were all going in.

“That’s when I knew I was something special,” Thomas said. “I was in a gym throwing up shots and they (were) going in. I was just hitting them and doing everything. I knew I was going to be a scorer.”

And a scorer he became.

In middle school, he once had 44 points, 33 rebounds and 11 blocks in a single game. With performances like that, it didn’t take long until other people thought he was special, too.

Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta knew Thomas before he was in high school and Thomas verbally committed to play basketball for the Matta’s squad in the eighth grade.

Thomas said he was taller than everybody then, but things didn’t change much when he got to high school.

During his freshman year, he scored a career-high 52 points in a varsity game. Throughout his high school career, Thomas said the ball was in his hands “110 percent of the time.”

It was a scorer’s dream. His team and coach wanted him to shoot and score as much as he possibly could.

“I had that green light,” he said. “I mean that light-green light.”

So, Thomas let it fly and eventually shot his way into the history books.

By the time he graduated, he was the No. 3-leading scorer in the history of the basketball-rich state of Indiana.

Then, Thomas arrived at OSU for his freshman year, and for the first time in his life he wasn’t the focal point of the offense.

In fact, he wasn’t even in the starting lineup.

Thomas said the adjustment wasn’t easy.

“For me, not playing (was the hardest thing),” Thomas said. “Coming from a high school where I played every minute, touching the ball every time and having that green light, that was very hard not playing because you want to be out there.”

When Thomas did come in the game, he said he was still playing like he did in high school, and before long, he quickly developed a reputation among fans for shooting too much and shooting too quickly.

“Last year I used to come in the game and chuck threes, just play to get that shot up,” Thomas said. “I didn’t play defense.”

In OSU’s NCAA tournament run in 2011, Thomas attempted one shot – an airball against Kentucky.

“I just felt, ‘Hey I’m going to get this shot up. It’s the NCAA Tournament,'” Thomas said of the shot.

Matta said that mentality is part of what got Thomas into trouble last season for shooting too much and a big part of what kept him on the bench.

Thomas still had the ability to score at a high level. Matta kept Thomas with the second string in practice because his scoring alone could “keep a scrimmage close.”

But Matta said Thomas wasn’t able to do the other things like play effective defense to warrant more playing time.

He finished the season averaging 7.5 points a game in an average of 14 minutes of action. But, the end of the year saw the departure of former starters Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale.

Suddenly, there was room for Thomas to take a bigger role in the offense in 2011-12.

He took advantage.

As the Buckeyes have marched to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007, Thomas leads the Buckeyes in scoring during postseason play.

He’s averaged 21.7 points since the beginning of the Big Ten Tournament and with his 31-point performance against Loyola (MD), he became just the seventh Buckeye in history to score 30 or more points in an NCAA Tournament game.

In OSU’s win against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16, Thomas had 20 points in the first half and 26 for the game.

He’s back to what he does best and back in the role he said he knew he was meant for since fourth grade.

“You have to look for him,” sophomore guard Aaron Craft said. “Once he gets going, it’s tough to stop him. If he’s having a good night, you just try to ride him.”

Craft said it’s gotten to the point where it doesn’t matter whether Thomas has made or missed his last five shots. He is always an option.

“He’s going to keep shooting,” Craft said. “He trusts in his shot and we trust in him. We have all the confidence in the world regardless of how many shots he’s made or missed before that.”

Thomas agreed.

“Once I hit the first couple, I just feel so comfortable and confident knocking down the next one,” he said.

Matta said the biggest change in Thomas isn’t on the offensive end, though.

“I think back to last year defensively, he was trying so hard, but he had to think everything through,” Matta said. “Now, he’s playing and just reacting.”

Thomas said he didn’t always like defense. His focus was always on the offensive end of the floor and the next shot he was going to take.

That isn’t true anymore.

“I like playing defense now,” Thomas said. “It’s a game-changer.”

His improvement didn’t come easy, though. His coach said Thomas has worked hard hone his skills in every facet of the game.

“No one is happier for Deshaun than me,” Matta said. “I’ve seen everything he’s put into being a better player and now what he’s getting out of it.”

His change in defensive mentality has helped him on the offensive end as well. Craft said he’s realizing how everything he does individually fits in with the team as a whole.

“Deshaun has done a great job this year growing up as a player and understanding what’s a good shot for him and what’s a great shot for him,” Craft said. “Even giving up some shots to other players when they have better ones. It’s just great to see him grow and become a complete basketball player.”

And Thomas said he’s happy with where his game is too. He said he feels like he’s in a rhythm and, as he’s shooting 55.6 percent from the field in the NCAA Tournament, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

“I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing,” Thomas said. “I’m pretty sure everybody’s looking.”

Some of those people looking may be NBA scouts. Thomas’ recent play has called into question whether he’ll opt to turn return to OSU for his junior season or declare for the NBA Draft.

“People are starting to notice now what Deshaun can bring to the table,” Thomas said. “Every kid’s dream is to try and make it to the pros.”

But for now, Thomas said he’s focused on OSU’s next opponent: Syracuse. OSU and Syracuse are scheduled to play at 7:05 p.m. Saturday in Boston with the winner advancing to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Many have pegged Thomas as the key to breaking Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone.

“I know by watching them there’s stuff I can do to break down Syracuse and their 2-3,” Thomas said. “My mindset is show no mercy, play hard and attack them. Don’t let them get nothing easy.”

As for all the attention Thomas has been getting, he’s not worried about it. He said he’s just focused on winning whether he’s the scorer or not.

“Once we make it to that promised land we want to make,” he said, “we’ll all get love.”

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