LOS ANGELES -- There have been many surprises throughout the NCAA tournament. Deshaun Thomas' knack for finding the rim has not been one of them. Few collegiate athletes rival his ability to score.
The 6-foot-7 NBA prospect is dangerous on the perimeter (35.5 percent from beyond the arc). He’ll hit floaters. He’ll drive, draw contact and still finish. He’ll come off screens and punish any foe who gives him space. He’ll make a move off the dribble and collect, too.
In the first half of Ohio State’s Sweet 16 victory over Arizona, Thomas started on the left side of the floor. Three Wildcats slid toward him. The pressure didn’t stop the junior from rushing to the lid, spinning and releasing the ball softly off his fingertips. The off-balance maneuver was natural for a veteran who has been an offensive star since his youth in Fort Wayne, Ind.
“It was always natural growing up,” he said in the pregame news conference Friday in Los Angeles. “Me in third grade, playing [YMCA] ball, always scoring, playing against [older] people ... scoring against them. Always had a knack for the ball. Got in high school, had the green light, played every position, took every shot, took every bad shot. So I had a knack of scoring the ball all my life.”
Thomas’ pro potential has been debated for years. He’s big and skilled. But he has never been known as a lockdown defender. The limits that might worry some NBA execs have rarely interrupted his progress at the collegiate level.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall recognizes Thomas’ effect and views the Shockers’ ability to neutralize him as one of their greatest tasks when the two teams meet Saturday at Staples Center in the Elite Eight.
“He is a -- and this is a compliment -- he is a bad shot-taker and a bad shot-maker,” Marshall said. “That is hard to do. But that's how talented he is. He can take bad shots and make them. What we've got to do is make him take bad shots and hopefully miss a great majority of them.”
Thomas is averaging 19.7 points per game. Per Ken Pomeroy, he has led the Big Ten by taking shots on 32.1 percent of his possessions.
He’s excelled with the “green light” he’s enjoyed throughout his career, but Thomas has quietly enhanced his game with nonscoring attributes, too.
He watched when Craft connected a last-second 3-pointer against Iowa State that sent the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16. It was proof of his growth.
“I think the thing that I get the most excited about is when he gets pumped up about getting a charge or being in the right position on defense or making the extra pass, stuff that he really wasn't doing when he first got here,” Craft said. “It really shows his hard work. He's listening. He wants to learn. He's not doing it perfect, but he's trying his best, and that's all we can ask.”
Thomas will be the most pivotal athlete on the floor Saturday. If the ball is in his hands, he’ll be a problem.
“He has a way to find angles,” coach Thad Matta said. “We went through that stretch in the Big Ten tournament where he was taking some bad ones. You look at his shooting percentage then to his shooting percentage now in the NCAA tournament, and it's incredible. I think that's a tribute to him recognizing that ‘I don't have to get it off and try to shoot myself out of it.’ Just let it flow, and good things will happen.”
WHO TO WATCH
Craft has recorded 18 assists, nine steals and seven turnovers in three NCAA tournament games. The junior has disrupted the offensive rhythms of Iona, Iowa State and Arizona thus far. Malcolm Armstead (10.8 PPG, 4.0 APG, 1.9 SPG) is the next point guard who has to deal with Craft’s nonstop pressure. But he has been a consistent leader for the Shockers, so we'll see.
WHAT TO WATCH
When Wichita State outplayed La Salle on Thursday, Shockers standout Carl Hall was the catalyst. He ran the floor and pushed the pace. While his team will certainly need his offensive production, his defensive role Saturday might be more important. He’ll be responsible for guarding Thomas. He knows that’s not an easy assignment. “He’s a skilled post player,” Hall said. “He can shoot it, he can drive it. I’ll definitely have my hands full at trying to make things difficult for him. I’ll be up for the challenge, though.”
STAT TO WATCH
During Ohio State’s 11-game winning streak, Thomas has taken 17 or more shots three times. In fact, he took 17 or more shots in five of the six games that preceded that run. The Buckeyes were 3-3 in those contests.