In an NCAA tournament field loaded with prolific scorers and future NBA lottery picks, you’d think the player with the best single-game performance would already be a household name.
A national player of the year candidate like Kansas junior Thomas Robinson or Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis? A versatile forward like Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger or Marquette’s Jae Crowder, perhaps? Maybe a reliable veteran with the ability to take over a game like North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller or Michigan State’s Draymond Green?
That’s right, the Buckeyes’ other big man turned in a 31-point performance in a round-of-64 win over Loyola (Md.) — and he didn’t stop there. Thomas put up 18 against Gonzaga and tallied 26 points and seven rebounds Thursday night to help Ohio State rally past Cincinnati, 81-66, and into an East region final matchup with Syracuse.
Thomas, who averaged just over 15 points coming into the tournament, has been lighting it up from inside the paint and beyond the arc. He’s shooting 56 percent from the field and has hit 7 of 15 from three-point range.
That production has taken some pressure off Sullinger, who had another strong, 23-point, 11-rebound game against the Bearcats.
“When you’ve got somebody like Deshaun that can post the basketball, score off jump hooks, hit the open shot at the three-point line, and he pretty much catches everything that you throw at him, he pretty much makes me look a lot better than what I am,” Sullinger said after the game. “I think it makes it so much easier for me to find Deshaun because nobody knows where he’s at but me. There’s sometimes he’s at the block, sometimes he’s at the three-point line, sometimes he’s at the midpost area. I think Deshaun just makes me look better than what I am.”
On Thursday in Boston, the Buckeyes led Cincinnati by 12 points at the half, but watched the Bearcats used a 19-4 run early in the second half to take a 52-48 lead with 11:34 to play. But from there, Thomas and Sullinger combined for 13 points and five rebounds on Ohio State’s 33-14 run to end the game.
The versatility Thomas provides could go a long way against Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. Working from the high post or on the perimeter, where he can elevate and shoot over Syracuse’s guards, Thomas should force the Orange to extend out to the perimeter, giving Sullinger more space to work around the basket and contest for rebounds.
But if Thursday night was any indicator, Thomas may be even more valuable on the defensive end against the Orange. Wisconsin hit a whopping 14 threes against Syracuse but could not stop penetration as the Orange shot 55 percent from the field. That number must come down significantly for the Buckeyes to advance to their first Final Four since 2007.
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