NEW ORLEANS -- During a defensive drill in Ohio State’s Friday afternoon practice at the Superdome, Lenzelle Smith Jr. screamed to let his teammates know his position.
“I got it! I’m here!” he shouted as his squad prepared for Saturday’s Final Four matchup against Kansas.
He didn’t have to yell for the college basketball world to acknowledge him last weekend, when he scored 17 points against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16 and 18 points against Syracuse in the Elite Eight. He connected on 11 of his 18 shots (6-for-10 from beyond the arc) and recorded nine rebounds during that stretch, too.
They were breakout performances for the sophomore.
For a while, however, Smith didn’t know exactly where he stood with the Buckeyes. That’s the challenge that comes with playing next to four other starters who combine to average 56.9 points per game.
“It’s very difficult. It even gets to the point where it’s frustrating at times,” Smith said. “Sacrificing whatever your personal intentions [are] for the betterment of the team is great. That’s the type of teammates you need. That’s what I wanted to do, type of guy I am. I’ve always been the type of player who’s willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and veteran William Buford have warranted the bulk of the Buckeyes’ media attention leading up to Final Four. But Smith’s output in the NCAA tournament proved that he’s also a key piece to Ohio State’s national title hopes.
“When you got a guy who people don’t respect his jumper and he’s been knocking them down, it’s very important for him to knock down shots and get offensive rebounds and defensive stops,” Thomas said.
Smith, who’s started in all 38 games this season, said he’s comfortable with his slot as a starter who’s capable of expanding his role as needed. He knows from experience that the Buckeyes might need a big night from him against the Jayhawks.
With Buford struggling (4-for-20 in his last two games), Smith recorded two of the finest performances of his career last weekend. He said he’s ready to repeat that feat against the Jayhawks if necessary.
“You just pay your dues. I’m slowly climbing the ladder,” Smith said. “I know my time can come and I’m not really worried about it right now. I’m just enjoying the ride.”