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December 12, 2013

Chip on his shoulder

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At 6-foot-4, Lenzelle Smith Jr. isn't particularly tall for a basketball player nor is his 210-pound frame particularly imposing.

When he speaks, his sometimes-squeaky voice doesn't bellow like Amir Williams'.

He's probably not Ohio State's best scorer and will play second -- and maybe even third -- fiddle to LaQuinton Ross.

He can't soar through the air dunk the ball like Sam Thompson.

He doesn't slash to the basket quite like Shannon Scott and, while he seems to be a spirited and stout defender in his own right, he's no Aaron Craft.

He might be an afterthought. He also might be his team's closest thing to a finished product.

"Nobody's asked me about him this year," said coach Thad Matta, "but I think he's playing at a very very high level of being a complete basketball player."

In fact, Matta jokingly asked reporters after the No. 3/2-ranked Buckeyes' 86-48 blowout of Bryant to continue to refrain from asking questions about or heaping praise on the senior guard.

"I would ask you not to give him credit because he plays better when he's got a demeanor about him honestly," Matta said. "Something I picked up on last year, he has to have a chip on his shoulder and I think he's done a very good job of that this year."

After all, Smith Jr. leads his crew with an average of 13 points a game that's been ignited and aided by a 53-percent shooting effort this season.

No one has more defensive rebounds than his 38 boards and no player -- not even the sharpshooter Ross -- strikes more from behind the arc with 19 three-pointers on a 46-percent connection rate.

"I would just say as a senior I put a lot work into my game offensively over the summer and my confidence is off the chart, especially playing with guys like Amir and you got Q [LaQuinton] stretching the defense, my teammates are able to find me wide open," he said.

Amid trying to contend with Ohio State's bag of weapons in Craft, Scott, Ross, Thompson, and Williams, Ohio State's opponents appear to forget about Smith Jr.

"A lot of teams for some reason are helping off of me and I'm getting great looks at the basket," he said, "so I'm just driving my legs and trying to get the most arc I can on the ball."

Such circumstances aren't anything new.

"I think we saw that a couple years ago when teams were choosing to like double team (former Buckeyes standout and current Boston Celtics power forward) Jared (Sullinger) off of him and he had the one game, I think it was Indiana, where he had 20 something points and rebounds, he was diving off the back side," Matta said.

After coming to Columbus in 2010 as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com alongside the likes of Craft and heavyweight gets like Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, Smith Jr. seems to have always played the role of the bridesmaid but never the bride.

After Thomas declared for the NBA draft last March, he and Craft are Ohio State's lone seniors. And while his rosy-cheeked teammate might be a household name, Smith Jr. often gets lost in the shuffle and his consistent production goes relatively unnoticed.

At least by most people.

"His defense always goes unnoticed except by me or the coaches I think. His ability to shoot right at 50 percent from the season at three point, he's rebounding, his assist to turnover ratio is positive -- something that wasn't last year and that was the things that we challenged him with," Matta said.

"He's had a really, really good demeanour about him in terms of being a senior and knowing that hey this is kind of my last crack at it and I just love the way he's playing right now."

And as long as teams continue to key in on players not wearing No. 32, it could be reflective of the kind of squad that Matta wants to coach and see.

"That you hope," he said, "is something that is a sign of a good basketball team."



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