by Thomas Wheat Hotchkiss
IU NCAA Final Four Student News Bureau
NEW ORLEANS – Deshaun Thomas likes to call himself “The Microwave” because of his play. But the moniker also seems to fit his personality.
Early into Ohio State’s open practice Friday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Thomas casually made several lethargic dribbles from the right sideline to the top of the key.
But with a sudden burst, Thomas unleashed a vicious step-back move and a quick jump shot, letting out a primal scream as the ball fell through the net. He turned and high-fived teammate William Buford, as if Saturday night’s Final Four showdown with Kansas had already begun.
Seconds later, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta cracked a joke and Thomas was back to his earlier state, laid-back and laughing.
This season has been a major breakthrough for Thomas, a 6-foot-7 sophomore. Since becoming a starter at the beginning of the season, Thomas has blossomed into a standout scorer for the Buckeyes. His season scoring average of 16.1 points is second among the Buckeyes. But his average of 21.8 points in the last four games is the highest among all players in the NCAA tournament.
“Deshaun’s stepped it up big time,” said Buckeyes junior forward Evan Ravenel. “Coming in, hitting shots…it’s hard to guard him because he can post the ball up, he can shoot the perimeter shot, handle the ball, he’s a tough guard.”
Last year, Thomas was coming off the bench and getting inconsistent playing time. Last March, Thomas played just three minutes in the Buckeyes Sweet Sixteen loss to Kentucky. This year, he’s had a big hand in getting Ohio State to the Final Four. He started each of the 38 games and averaged 31.6 minutes.
“Last year I’d seen the big stage,” said Thomas. “I played a little bit against Kentucky. But it’s fun to get some (significant playing time in the tournament).”
Thomas is an explosive scorer with an equally dynamic personality. In the Ohio State locker room Friday afternoon, Thomas held court with reporters, alternating between jokes and thoughtful analysis, often in the same answer.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you be so wide open sometimes?’…I don’t know,” Thomas said. “We’ve got players like Jared (Sullinger) and (Aaron) Craft that can score. They can’t just be focused on one player.”
Thomas’ gregarious nature is a hit with his teammates.
“Deshaun is very lively, very vivid, he’s engaged with everything,” said Ravenel. “He’s a good kid. He’s one of the greatest dudes I’ve ever met.”
But come Saturday night, Thomas will put the jokes aside. The popular narrative for Saturday night’s game has been the showdown between a pair of first team All-American forwards in Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson. But Thomas, not Sullinger, is expected to guard Robinson.
“I’m going to try to make it not so easy on him,” Thomas said of his mindset matching up with the Jayhawk All-American. “I’m going to try to move him around, I’m sure he’s going to try to dominate inside on me.”
Buford sounded confident that Thomas would be ready for the assignment. “Any challenge that people put in front of him,” Buford said, “he’s always stepped up to it and showed that he’s up there with the elite college basketball players, especially on the offensive end.”
In the opposing locker room, Kansas appeared to realize that Thomas could pose a difficult challenge, particularly because of his ability to shoot from the perimeter.
“The way he’s been playing this tournament, he’s been great,” said senior guard Conner Teahan. “…If we can stop him, that’ll be huge for us just because four-men that can step out have been an issue with us this year.”
Thomas’ burst of intensity in Friday’s open practice was a preview of the emotion he will bring to Saturday night. Robinson presents a formidable challenge, but Thomas is looking forward to the task.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “It’s going to be a real good battle.”