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December 4, 2013

Finding focus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sometime before Ohio State played North Florida Friday, coach Thad Matta pulled LaQuinton Ross aside and painted a picture of the junction awaiting the junior forward.

"He and I talked the other day and I just said, 'Hey look: I can't -- we can't -- make shots for you, we can't think for you out there on the court," Matta said following the third-ranked Buckeyes 35-point win against the Ospreys.

Apparently, Ross was listening, and attentively at that.

After totaling just seven points on 24-percent shooting in three-straight games against Marquette, American and Wyoming, Ross exploded for 17 points and buried four-of-seven shots from behind the arc.

That, surely, is the LaQuinton Ross Ohio State fans expected to see after the Jackson, Miss., native surged during their team's Elite Eight run last season.

It's probably the LaQuniton Ross they'll want to see against Maryland Wednesday in the Big Ten/ACC challenge.

But the LaQuinton Ross of this year -- at least so far -- is one that seems unsure of himself despite having proved his worth time and again in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments in March.

"I think LaQuinton is one of these guys that the second he relaxes, he becomes an average player and think he's starting to come to grips with that, Matta said.

It's a battle he and the Buckeyes often faced in 2012, as Ross appeared to fall short of the relatively high expectations that come with being potentially an NBA lottery pick someday.

Coupled with impressive play down the stretch a season ago and the loss of the Big Ten's leading scorer in Deshaun Thomas, such soaring standards got steeper.

And Ross, who's dealt with nagging injuries in the early going of this year, might not always be meeting them.

Perhaps much of deals with a mess of thoughts swirling through the 6-foot-8, 220-pounder's head.

"I think sometimes when you watch him on tape and maybe I'm wrong -- you guys watch him play -- but he looks like he might not be locked in," said North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll, who has an extended relationship with Ross after recruiting him as an assistant at Baylor.

"He might be not be sure what his role is, what shot he should take, is it a good shot, is it a bad shot, I'm a player, I'm a this, I'm a that, am I a three, am I a four, should I go to the league early? Should I come back? I mean, I know everything that's going on."

And if that's the case, it might be why Ross appears occasionally disengaged.

"LaQuinton has been in the spotlight for a long time and the fact that he went through a little deal with the first four or five games, he's a smart kid and we can only encourage him and reinforce some things and let him know how important he is to our team this year," said Ohio State assistant coach Dave Dickerson.

But the Buckeyes don't need Ross to be Michael Jordan.

"Well I go back to when he hadn't played in a couple games that well and I said, 'Look: we need LaQuinton to play at a certain level,'" Matta said.

"Not greatness or anything like that, we just need him to be a consistent player and I think he can be that for us. I think from the standpoint of what that does for our team, it obviously makes us better because it's another guy out there that can handle pass and shoot."

When he's entrenched into the game, for example, Ohio State's offense shot nearly 70 percent against the Ospreys Friday. When Ross flounders, however, it appears the rest of the team follows suit.

That might be coincidence, but the Buckeyes surely can only benefit from the LaQuinton Ross that flashed league-worthy moments late last season.

For Ross, the difference between building upon such an upward trend and mired in early struggles might simply be focus on the here and now and not on the notion of playing professional basketball.

"To his credit tonight for some reason he seemed to be locked in unfortunately," Driscoll said following Friday's game.

"I asked him to not be. I told him, 'You know, you really need to do lottery status tonight.'

"I couldn't get his mind on the NBA, though."

For Ross and Ohio State, of course, that's a good thing.



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