Buckeyes audition sidekicks

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The scoring superhero's identity is no secret.

Ohio State has leaned heavily on the seemingly limitless offensive arsenal of junior forward Deshaun Thomas, and he has shown so far that he's the perfect man for the job to the tune of 20.3 points per game.

Pinning down the sidekick, though, isn't quite as easy for the Buckeyes. But effectively keeping him masked and guarding the secret might just be part of coach Thad Matta's master plan, particularly since lately that has allowed him to cycle through a handful of candidates capable of filling that role and backing up Thomas -- depending on what kind of assistance Ohio State might need on a given night.

"We know going into a game," Matta said. "Via matchups, or maybe how they guard certain things and within the confines of how we do things offensively, we know that a guy potentially has the chance to maybe have a high-scoring game.

"That's secretive information that I won't give you guys before a game. But you know that as a coach."

The more mystery the Buckeyes can present ahead of games like Tuesday night's contest against Winthrop or Saturday's top-10 showdown against Kansas, the better for Matta, who has an increasingly diverse set of scorers available to him as he pokes and prods for the perfect way to attack.

If a team has trouble slowing penetration, junior point guard Aaron Craft is capable of getting to the rim and creating either a shot for himself or for a teammate on the perimeter.

Force the Buckeyes to win from the outside and junior guard Lenzelle Smith is waiting there. Smith has found his rhythm from beyond the arc and is knocking down 52.9 percent of his 3-point attempts.

If a little help is needed off the bench, sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross has shown a knack for filling it up both inside and out. At times it seems to come as easily to him as it does for Thomas. Ross is averaging 10.2 points per game in 20.2 minutes of action.

All three of these guys have some minor flaws that keep them from becoming consistent, high-scoring options, from Craft's jumper to Smith's streakiness to the continuing development of Ross as a more relentless competitor.

But they also each bring something invaluable to the offense to complement what Thomas offers, and collectively they've helped boost the Buckeyes into the top 20 nationally in scoring. And if a mix-and-match approach might keep their own personal numbers roughly the same, it also might wind up allowing the leading scorer's stats to stay among the best in the country by preventing defenses from devoting extra attention to Thomas.

"We've got a chance to keep teams guessing," Smith said. "They never know who's going to score. With different guys like that, it's interchangeable. They have to pay attention to everybody, and then when stuff like that happens, people start paying attention more to us and that leaves Deshaun open for more shots.

"Everybody's happy, getting high-fives, and the energy is flowing. When we can get into that mode, I think we'll be that type of team that everybody expects us to be coming toward the end of the year."

By then the Buckeyes figure to have seen their share of defenses designed to slow down Thomas and actually enough talent to do it on occasion.

Ohio State was obviously never counting on another successful run through the Big Ten or to the Final Four coming solely through the work of one guy. But the plan also doesn't require settling on just one more player to support him on the offensive end.

"I don't know any percentages, I don't know points or anything like that," Craft said. "The worst thing we can do is start thinking individually.

"With the offensive style that we run, we have a lot of plays that have options for various people at various times throughout the play. It definitely makes it tough on opposing defenses."

It makes it just as difficult to figure out exactly who is going to supply some extra scoring from game to game. But Matta always seems to have an idea, and the secret is safe with him.