Thomas swings a pass while Wisconsin's Jared Berggren defends.
Points are exactly what we’ve come to expect from Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer. It’s why I’m not entirely impressed or surprised with his scoring prowess, even if he did score 25 points in Tuesday’s win over Wisconsin, the league’s stingiest defense.
Instead, it was his four assists that have me far more intrigued.
For months, all we’ve heard is that Ohio State lacks a complementary scorer. Who's going to step up? Deshaun Thomas’ scoring and Aaron Craft’s defense just about sums up the Buckeyes, at least perception-wise.
But as Tuesday night proved, the Buckeyes don’t need a complementary scorer as long as Thomas is passing the ball. I shouldn't say don't need one. They do need one. It's just that Thomas' passing makes it come organically.
Defenses like Wisconsin’s have doubled down on him all year, and instead of hitting a man cutting to the hoop or making an extra pass from the corner, Thomas has taken matters into his own hands.
His assist percentage of 9.6 is the second lowest among the Big Ten’s top 10 scorers, Cody Zeller being the other, according to KenPom.com. That suggests an under-reliance on his teammates. His 1.4 assists per game are tied for 42nd in the Big Ten, according to ESPN.
It’s why he’s had games of 28 and 24 points, respectively, in losses to ranked Big Ten foes Michigan State and Illinois. In those games, the Buckeyes’ only two conference losses, he’s had a grand total of one assist.
He had just one total assist in Ohio State’s other two losses as well, games against No. 2 Duke and No. 9 Kansas. Obviously Aaron Craft is the team’s primary distributor, but with defenses focused on neutralizing Thomas’ post moves, his best option is to swing the ball.
Against Wisconsin, Thomas’ four assists may have been more important than his 25 points because they laid the foundation for the rest of the offense and gave Ohio State a chance to have a second scoring threat.
As Columbus Dispatch columnist Bob Hunter noted earlier this season, Thomas has begun to take pride in dishing out assists. "It's just me becoming a player," Thomas told Hunter. "It's just knowing the game and knowing when to make the extra pass. Freshman year, I probably wouldn't make that pass. I would've jacked it up."
In one sequence early in the second half against Wisconsin, Thomas assisted on three straight field goals, once on a transition layup, once on a kick-out to Craft for a three-pointer at the top of the arc and finally on a nice bounce pass to a cutting Amir Williams for a dunk.
And then, just when the defense started sagging to contain all of Ohio State's players, Thomas attacked. With the defense’s attention diverted, Thomas took over, scoring 10 points on Ohio State’s game-breaking 15-2 run.
This is the recipe that coach Thad Matta needs to implement throughout the rest of the season. Get other capable scorers like Craft (13 points vs. Wisconsin) and LaQuinton Ross (eight points) involved, and Ohio State suddenly has its sidekick scorers.
Craft thrives in pick-and-roll situations and does such a good job of creating space that he can frequently drive to the hoop, score and draw the foul. But aside from Craft and Thomas, the Buckeyes struggle to get their stretch-forwards involved.
The Buckeyes are too reliant on Thomas. It makes them extremely vulnerable, especially if a coach were to game-plan accordingly and attack his defensive lapses. Oftentimes Thomas looks soft when defending in the post, but it’s really that he, and his team, can’t afford for him to sit with foul trouble, so they live with the uninspired defense.
It all stems from his passing. If the Buckeyes want to live dangerously by going all-in every night with Thomas’ highly predictable post moves, they’ll eventually get bitten.
His continued distribution is exactly what this team needs. The 25 points are an added bonus.