COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When most Ohio State fans think of March 22, 2012, they think of the Buckeyes' 81-66 win over Cincinnati that sent them to the Elite Eight en route to their eventual appearance in the Final Four. And so does Deshaun Thomas.
The OSU forward scored a team-high 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, pulling down six rebounds in 39 minutes of action against the Bearcats. That performance is all the more impressive when you take into consideration the other reason why that date is so important to Thomas: it was the same day that his son, Deshaun Jr., was born.
Playing in the NCAA Tournament's East Region in Boston, Mass., the then-sophomore was more than 770 miles away from Columbus and unable to attend the birth of his first child. While Thomas admitted that Deshaun Jr.'s mother was unhappy about his absence on that day, he said he did all that he could to honor his new son.
"It was kind of hard, the mother was kind of sad about it but she understands what it takes and the business side of it," Thomas said. "One day when we get to talking and he asks that question, 'Dad, was you there?' or something like that, I'll be like, 'Son, I was there in spirit. I had a great game against Cincinnati, 24 points, and it was all for you.'"
While Thomas remained focused on basketball through the support of then-teammates Jared Sullinger, William Buford, and Jordan Sibert, the Fort Wayne, Ind. native knew on that night that his life was forever changed. But it wasn't until after Ohio State's Final Four-clinching win over Syracuse that he was able to return to Columbus and experience a moment that he said transformed him from a boy to a man.
"I went home, and he was there- just how little he was and small he was and it really changed me. It brightened my eyes knowing that I got somebody who looks up to me," Thomas said. "You gotta watch what you do and just know that you gotta work even harder and harder for somebody in your life who's very important in your life to eat and live."
For any college athlete, the balance between practice, games, and academics seems like more than enough to handle without the added responsibility of being a present parent. Thomas, however, has taken his new role in stride, and as a result is playing the best basketball of his life.
Leading the Big Ten in scoring, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward is averaging 20 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting and 6.2 rebounds a night in his junior season. Should he forego his remaining year of eligibility, most scouting websites project Thomas to be a second round pick in next June's NBA Draft.
It's not hard to imagine Deshaun Jr. playing a role in Thomas' impending decision to turn pro or return to school for his senior season, but for now he remains focused on the Buckeyes' run for a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship.
But even if he doesn't earn another conference crown or get drafted, the personal growth that Thomas has experienced in the last year has been undeniable. And perhaps no person can vouch for that more than Ohio State coach Thad Matta.
"Deshaun has obviously blossomed as a person in terms of where he started from Day One to where he is now. I know that the parenting situation is something that he takes very serious," Matta said. "His life is a little bit different now than most college guys and him accepting that responsibility- I'm very proud of how he's handled that entire situation."