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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Scorer Thomas learning defense comes first

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

CLEVELAND — William Buford sees the similarities between himself three-plus years ago and current Ohio State freshman Deshaun Thomas.

"Oh, yeah, a lot," Buford said Saturday as the Buckeyes prepared for this afternoon's NCAA third-round game against George Mason at Quicken Loans Arena.

"You get here and you learn you have to play defense and rebound," Buford, the former star from the former Libbey High School, said. "All we had to do in high school, all we really cared about to be honest, was shoot and score. It's different here."

Thomas has followed that learning curve all season. Using the 1-to-10 scale he gave himself a 1 as a defensive player when he first arrived on OSU's campus.

"I was way better than that," Buford said, laughing. "I was a 2. But I'd give Deshaun a 7 or an 8 now."

Well, maybe. The freshman from Fort Wayne, Ind., while not yet a polished lock-down defender by any stretch of imagination, surely has become more of a complete player. He played 20 minutes against Texas-San Antonio on Friday and had eight rebounds, second to Jared Sullinger's team-high nine, and three assists. While he was in for David Lighty or Aaron Craft, and matched with opponents on the perimeter, team defense did not suffer a bit.

"Defensively, I thought he was very good," coach Thad Matta said. "And he really has a knack for finding open areas, finding the seams. Making the kick-out passes he did was exciting. I was very happy to see him play like that in his first NCAA tournament game."

That's because there are sure to be more. But we can't ignore his calling card. Thomas made 5 of 7 shots, two of his hits from 3-point range, for 13 points. That's seven attempts in 20 minutes. That's what Thomas does.

The light may have three colors, but he sees only green.

It is what he did to average 30-plus points over his final 54 prep games, what he did to win Indiana's Mr. Basketball honor as a senior, what he did to be rated as the No. 1 small forward in the nation by most recruiting services. It's the reason Matta fell in love with him and it's the reason he may someday take his place among OSU scoring greats.

For now, he waits his turn, something that might not have been the case if Thomas, in the proud tradition of many Mr. Basketballs from the Hoosier state, had landed at Indiana University.

"It probably would have been different if their program hadn't been going through stuff, but the way it was it wasn't my fit," the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Thomas said. "There was a lot of pressure on me. Fort Wayne is home. Indiana is home. But my heart was at Ohio State."

His shot is there too. Thomas is averaging just 7.7 points, but that is in less than 15 minutes, on average, per game.

He has attempted 211 shots — Jon Diebler plays 20 minutes, an entire half, more per game than Thomas does and has 267 field goal attempts — so there is nothing shy about young Deshaun, who reports to the scorer's table with his left arm cocked. His .483 shooting percentage is No. 2 on the team among non-post players.

There aren't many lineups in college basketball that Thomas couldn't crack. Ohio State has one of them.

"I think I've already proved myself at this level, but we have seniors who can really play," he said. "There are so many guys who can score. Next year will be different. I've just tried to stay humble."

Humility is a vibe you might not pick up from watching Thomas on the court. It is a different story in the locker room where he is as personable as any of the Buckeyes with a smile that lights up the joint and dimples that don't end.

"My game has really changed," he said. "At the start of the year I was so hyper. I wanted to score so bad, I'd get on the floor and take the first shot I got. I'm more relaxed now. Coach Matta has taught me it's about defense first and the offense will take care of itself coming off that. I do want to be the whole package."

Still, a leopard doesn't change its spots. Thomas is a shooter and the more he talks, the more the spots come out.

"That's my skill; I put the basketball in the hoop," he said. "I do what I've got to do, make a big play or a big shot. When [Matta] calls my name it usually means we need a score. I can't think of a game I didn't produce that."
It's only braggin' if it isn't true.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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