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November 25, 2013

The disappearing act of LaQuinton Ross

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COLUMBUS, Ohio-LaQuinton Ross went to the bench with 15:27 left in the second half of Ohio State's game against Wyoming Monday evening. There he would sit for the remainder of the contest.

He took sips of Gatorade. He looked up at the video screen and chatted with those sitting next to him. He stood up and clapped for his teammates when something good happened. He yawned.

The junior forward did everything but make an impact on the court in the Buckeyes 65-50 victory against the Cowboys in Columbus.

He needs to do more.

"I think this," Thad Matta said, "We need him to make some shots."

Ross finished with three points in 19 minutes. For the third straight game, he spent more time on the bench than he did on the floor in the final 20 minutes. He sat four roughly the final 13 minutes in a win at Marquette and for about 14 minutes in a victory against American.

A half a month into Ohio State's season, Ross is averaging about six points a contest. He's tallied three assists, two steals, one block, and 22 rebounds.

Coming into the year, Ross was tabbed as the heir to former Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas' scoring throne. Ross had an excellent NCAA Tournament in 2013, making a game winning 3-pointer against Arizona in the Sweet 16 and often being the Buckeyes' go-to option.

Multiple national analysts pegged Ross as one of the country's top players heading into this season. His name appeared on all of the 2014 NBA mock drafts. Currently, though, his name is only appearing near the bottom of the Buckeyes' stat sheet.

"A lot of it is just getting in the flow, getting in the synergy of what we're doing, not fighting things," Matta said. "(It's) probably more mentally than physically."

When Ross arrived on Ohio State's campus three years ago, he carried the burden and the blessing of being one of the top recruits in the country. Much was expected of him, and he expected a lot of himself. An academic mishap caused him to be ineligible for the first half of his freshman season, and the played sparingly when he became eligible.

"He's been through the battles. He was a guy that came in and thought he was going to have an opportunity to play right away. Then some things happened and circumstances took over," said senior guard Aaron Craft, who scored 10 points in the win.

Despite Ross' shortcomings, Ohio State (5-0) is undefeated, ranked in the top-10.

"I think that the best thing right now is we're winning," Craft said. "We're finding ways to win without him having great games. When we come along, when he comes along, that's just going to make us that much better."

The player seeming to benefit from Ross' time on the bench is junior forward Sam Thompson. Ross has started in each of the Buckeyes' five contests, but Thompson has usually replaced his junior teammate in the game's deciding moments.

Against Wyoming, it was Thompson's play that appeared to spark an Ohio State rally. The Buckeyes trailed by four points midway through the second half, but defensive intensity, led by Thompson, prompted a 17-3 run that put the game away.

"Sam, his energy is what allows him to play the great defense he plays," said senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., who scored a game-high 20 points. "When Sam is out there, he brings energy into the game. It fires me up. I know it fires the guys up. It just gives us an extra edge on defense."

Ohio State is winning games right now, but they haven't played great in any. Shooting was improved against Wyoming-the Buckeyes shot 41 percent from the field and made eight 3-pointers-but it's been inconsistent, at best, this November.

Ross, if he can play like he did during a three-week stretch last March, could be the player that takes Ohio State from good to great, from a team that wins a game or two in the NCAA Tournament to a team that contends for a Final Four appearance.

Matta is confident Ross will become that player.

"We're going to get LaQuinton Ross to play better basketball, to play at the level he's capable of playing at," Matta said. "We'll find a way to get him playing."



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