What still stands as Ohio State’s most influential win of the season – a 56-53 win over then-No. 2 Michigan on Jan. 13 – could end up being a difference-maker for the Buckeyes’ season for reasons other than what it did for the team’s positioning in the Big Ten standings.
As Ohio State darted out to a large first-half lead before holding on to the close victory on its home floor, sophomore LaQuinton Ross watched anxiously from the bench secretly questioning when his time would arrive. It never did.
Still, Ross celebrated after the game like he was supposed to. He joined his teammates with chest-bumps, high-fives and smiles on the floor in the moments after the game dramatically ended. And he rejoiced in the locker room with his teammates after a game that once again proved that Ohio State was a real national contender.
Inside, Ross wasn’t thrilled.
“That was the breaking point,” Ross said three weeks later. “Everybody was out there celebrating because we just beat the No. 2 team in the country. But inside, I think I was being kind of selfish because I was thinking, ‘I didn’t get my chance.’ ”
In that game, Ross played only three minutes and missed his only shot attempt. It was a far cry from the role he envisioned he’d have before the season, fully expecting he would realize his immense potential and join four other players in the Buckeyes’ starting lineup.
But reality set in for Ross. His defense wasn’t up to par to guard Michigan’s athletic guards or small forwards, and OSU head coach Thad Matta made it clear that he didn’t trust his sophomore when it mattered the most.
Perhaps that lack of trust came from Ross’ attitude for most of the season prior to that game. Admittedly rebellious because he didn’t feel he was earning he deserved, the second-year Buckeye found himself mentally checking out.
“At the beginning of this year and last year, I got a little rebellious against stuff,” Ross said. “I wasn’t playing much. So I was like, ‘You can’t tell me nothing.’ ”
Ross could have taken that combative attitude to a new level after the Michigan game. Instead, the talented wing player decided he could no longer accept being an afterthought when Matta looks down the bench for substitutions.
“I just started talking to myself,” Ross said. “What do I have to do to get on the court? What do I have to do to impress the coaches? What can I do to be a better teammate? From then on, I’ve come to practice every day and tried to listen – listen to my teammates, listen to my coaches.”
Listening and grasping the elements that it takes to become a more complete player at the collegiate level was Ross’ biggest struggle. He was a pure scorer who averaged more than 25 points per game during his final prep season, and he felt his natural ability to score would be enough to earn early and consistent playing time.
That certainly wasn’t and isn’t the case, and Matta’s defensive approach is magnified as the head coach sat Ross during long stretches of games during which Ohio State clearly was struggling to come up with points.
“When you first get here, everyone’s an all-star,” junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “You think so highly of yourself and you don’t feel like anybody should be playing over you. You have to learn that there’s always someone who’s older, faster, stronger, better or just more dedicated and has been in the program longer. You have to wait your turn.
“Q is starting to listen and learn. He’s seeing things he didn’t want to see initially. He’s becoming a better person and a better teammate, and it’s helping his game out and helping this team.”
Now midway through his second season, Ross could be on the verge of “getting it,” something Matta said happens at different times for different players.
Former point guard Mike Conley Jr. got it immediately and left after his freshman season. It took Evan Turner two years, but he became national player of the year in his junior season. For Ross, he could be on the verge of taking that next step.
That was most evident in Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin on Jan. 29 during which he was on the floor for most of the pivotal 15-0 run late in the second half that got the Buckeyes the key victory on their home floor. During that run, Ross hit a big three, had two rebounds and even posted a steal.
“LaQuinton is on that curve of becoming a complete player,” Matta said. “I think he has a better understanding of what he needs to do on a daily basis (to take all the necessary steps forward). We need LaQuinton to continue at the pace he is because he’s definitely helping us.”
What is separating Ross from more playing time is his defense, but Matta said he’s becoming more comfortable with that part of the 6-8, 220-pound wing’s game. The coach weighs the risk-reward potential of putting Ross in the game depending on matchups, and if matched up with an athletic small forward, Ross must prove to Matta that he’ll score more points than he’ll allow.
Ross seems to be on his way to doing that.
Since the Michigan game, Ross has played at least 15 minutes in four of the Buckeyes’ five games. Whether that will continue to be a trend – and potentially expand as the NCAA Tournament draws closer – remains to be seen.
Ohio State could certainly use his ability to score. Ross, however, finally gets that he’ll have to bring more to the table than that. As the Buckeyes prepare to play at again on Tuesday night, perhaps Ross’ will get his chance this time.
“It’s not just about scoring because you have to do stuff on the other end,” he said. “That is what this team is known for. I think the biggest way I’ve probably grown is listening. Not even dealing with basketball, but just listening to everything that my coaches try to feed me. I think it is making a big difference.”
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