DESHAUN THOMAS IS just lying there. Bodies are flying by. The Ohio State bench, outstretched arms waving like rows of cilia, is desperately trying to will its star back on defense:
"DT, don't be an a--hole."
For the Buckeyes, this scene is all too familiar. Thomas, Ohio State's leading scorer and rebounder, can be, well, difficult. What else can you say about a player who, with his team down 68-65 and 2:26 left in a classic against then-No. 3 Michigan, is just sitting there pouting? He clanked a three-point attempt with a swarm of neon jerseys in his face and landed on his butt. Now his teammates are showing their consternation at his reaction. Heading into the game, OSU coach Thad Matta had preached transition D above all else. But how is Thomas going to transition, much less defend, with his backside glued to the hardwood?
When he finally gets up, after most of his teammates are downcourt, Thomas pulls off a semi-balletic maneuver. He sashays to his right and intercepts a Michigan outlet pass deflected by OSU junior Lenzelle Smith Jr. Then in one motion the 6'7" junior swingman lines up another three and lets it fly. Swish. Tie game.
And once again, all is forgiven.
"DT is probably the best scorer I've ever played with," says junior point guard Aaron Craft, who, like Thomas, played with two-time OSU All-American Jared Sullinger, now with the Celtics. "He's also the most frustrating. He takes shots that make us all say 'No, no, no' as they go up, and then he somehow makes them, and we're like: 'It's cool. Nice shot.'"
The lefthanded Thomas would launch from halfcourt if he thought he had a good look. As of Feb. 25, he was taking 32.7 percent of his team's shots, the most of any Big Ten player and third among big six conference players, behind Louisville's Russ Smith (33.3 percent) and Virginia Tech's Erick Green (33.2 percent). Thomas was making a respectable 45.5 percent of his shots and averaging an impressive 19.9 ppg despite playing in the country's toughest conference. "I know I'm a scorer and my team needs me," he says. Considering that Smith was OSU's second-leading scorer at 9.7 ppg, the Buckeyes know that if they're going to have any chance at a second straight Final Four, they need Thomas firing at will.
It's his capricious on-court behavior that drives them crazy. It even bothers Thomas: "I see myself on video sometimes, and I don't like how I'm acting."
It wasn't always like this. Back at Bishop Luers High in Fort Wayne, Ind., Thomas' emotions were easier to manage. Maybe that's because he scored at will and led his team to two consecutive state titles. On last year's Final Four team, he shot 52 percent as a second option behind Sullinger and broke out during the tournament, leading all players with 21.8 ppg entering the semifinal. Now as every defense's primary target, he knows he's in for a battle whenever he steps onto the court. Opponents routinely switch quick guards with bigs, then back again, to try to stop him. But somehow he still scores in seemingly impossible situations. And when he doesn't, he reacts.
Opponents and critics label Thomas spoiled, selfish and bratty, blowing up Twitter after he jaws at coaches and officials with his nose scrunched and brows angled like Mr. Yuk on poison-control stickers. "I always tell him to lean on Aaron," Matta says. Craft admits he and Thomas have fleeting moments of tension. "But since he makes so many of those crazy shots, I can't get too mad," Craft says.
Off the court, Thomas is laid-back and affable. He's a favorite of tutors and is quick to joke with everyone from student managers to walk-ons to other students. "People stop me on campus to say they can't believe I'm nice, and I've had professors tell me they were worried about having me in class," he says. So how does he explain his on-court demeanor? "When I'm out there," he says, "nothing matters but winning. I try to control my temper, but it's not easy."
As Ohio State heads into the Big Ten tournament and the NCAAs, a lot of eyes will be on Thomas, watching how he reacts to adversity. Due to a weak 2013 NBA draft pool, one Western Conference scout thinks Thomas has a shot at the lottery. "You can't deny his scoring ability, and he has skill on the perimeter," says the scout. What about Thomas' meltdowns? "Deshaun can be emotional with his coaches and too aware of the crowd, but I'd take him any day over a player who doesn't care enough."
At age 21, Thomas believes he's showing signs of maturity and maybe even thinking about more than scoring points. Sitting at a table full of teammates, he says, "I think now I actually get more upset when I'm getting beat on defense."
To which Craft snips, "At least you're thinking about playing a little defense."
Thomas' eyes narrow and his jaw stiffens. He looks as if he's going to lose it. Then he does, bursting into laughter.