Ohio State's key returnee: LaQuinton Ross

Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross had several big moments in the NCAA tournament, including a winning shot against Arizona. Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. The day's featured program: Ohio StateInsider, which Andy Katz delves more into here. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

I let my enthusiasm for LaQuinton Ross' obvious natural gifts spill out onto Twitter on March 6, as Ohio State was thrillingly engaged in what would end up being its best win of the season:

Revisiting that tweet reminded me just how silly it seemed at the time, including to many Ohio State fans. Ross? A top-five pick in a loaded draft? Come on, Brennan!

I'll admit it: At the time, it was a bit silly, and not just because Ross didn't even play well at Indiana that night. To that point, Ross, though blessed with a combination of lanky size and perimeter skills, had been a maddeningly inconsistent entity. If you review his overall sophomore season, there is some to like, but still plenty to be cautious about. The 99.6 offensive rating. The 22.7 percent turnover rate. The less-than-stellar work on the boards. The tendency to drift for long stretches.

Then March happened.

Even on a team with Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, no player was as crucial to Ohio State's Elite Eight run as Ross, specifically in difficult wins over Iowa State and Arizona. Against Iowa State, Ross finished 6-of-10 from the field, and 3-of-5 from 3, with most of those shots coming in key moments down the stretch. The Arizona game in Los Angeles was no different, as Ross hit two massive 3s late in the game and finished with 17 points on eight field goals and an offensive rating of 161. Even in OSU's loss to the Shockers, Ross scored 19 points, including 9-of-10 from the free throw line.

There were a handful of moments in each of Ohio State's four tournament games in which Ross was clearly the best and most talented player on the floor. They didn't always last for 40 minutes, but they were there.

The question is whether Ross is ready to replicate that March performance for the length of a college basketball season. This is a massive challenge. Ross won't be asked to do more in the same context as last season. He'll be asked to be the featured scorer on an offense that will desperately need someone to approximate the reliable excellence of NBA-bound forward Deshaun Thomas. Thomas really was excellent: He finished the season with a 114.4 offensive rating while shooting 32.2 percent of Ohio State's available shots while on the floor. The Buckeyes were first and foremost a defensive team, at various times the best in the country (particularly from mid-February on), anchored by players who are not of the go-to offensive breed. But Thomas was not only good in his own right, he demanded so much attention from opposing defenses that he helped turn a team of average scorers into the 12th most efficient in the country, by KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency lights.

In OSU coach Thad Matta's ideal world, Ross would slot right into Thomas' role. The skill sets -- both are essentially face-up wing forwards who can shoot on the perimeter and finish around the rim -- are almost identical. Just make Ross the new Thomas. Easy, right?

In reality, it will be impossible to replace Thomas with just one player. Ross will have to contribute much on the offensive end, but 6-foot-7 junior Sam Thompson -- whose own 112.5 offensive rating is emblematic of Thompson's intelligent and efficient play, as well as his ability to streak toward the rim and finish while there -- will have a large role to play. Junior guard Shannon Scott will have to develop into more of a threat. He will have to be a more confident shooter (he shot just 33 3s, and made just 11, in 2012-13) to help keep defenses honest. And junior center Amir Williams, who also showed long-awaited signs of strength throughout the season, might still become a go-to threat on the low block.

That leaves Craft. There are many great things the Ohio State point guard has brought to the table in his three seasons. He might be the best perimeter defender in the country. His coaches and teammates trust him implicitly. But it seems likely Craft has topped out as an offensive player. He is solid, but he is not going to be the go-to scorer on a national title-type team.

But Craft will be guarding people, as will Thompson and Scott and Lenzelle Smith, which is why we can fairly expect Ohio State to be a defensive monster in the same vein as 2012-13.

Whether the Thomas-less Buckeyes will score at a sufficient rate is the key question of their season. No one looks as likely to answer it as Ross. He appears destined to become a pure scorer. He's too gifted, and playing at a program that has traditionally strip-mined every last bit of talent out of its players, to not get there.

Then again, that's what Ohio State fans have been saying since a raw Ross committed to the Buckeyes two years ago. We've seen glimpses. Are we to assume that Ross' assured March is the turning point, the early warning signs of a star putting it all together? Or was it just a tantalizing but ultimately outlying small sample size?

We'll find out in a few months. Ross might not be a lottery pick, or a top-five pick. Maybe the potential is so bright it is blinding me the point of confusion. But Ross could be all of those things. If he is, I bet we'll find out in 2013-14.