Aaron Craft's game-winning shot rightly drew the majority of the attention in the aftermath of Ohio State's last-second 78-75 win over Iowa State on Sunday, and Craft's emergence as a secondary scorer behind Deshaun Thomas has been a significant factor in the Buckeyes' current 10-game winning streak. Craft has scored at least 14 points in five of the last night games, and if Ohio State gets anything from someone(s) besides Thomas, they defend well enough to be in every game they play.
The less-discussed variable in the win over the Cyclones, though, was Thad Matta's more liberal use of a smaller, more athletic lineup that included sophomore LaQuinton Ross. Ross, a former top-50 recruit who has taken some time to blossom in Columbus, delivered three huge three-pointers on his way to 17 points while helping the Buckeyes cope a bit better with Iowa State's spread attack and slashing wings.
Craft getting to the rim more frequently is a nice plus for Ohio State, but Ross has game-changing offensive ability and positional flexibility. His late-season emergence is a huge potential X-factor for the Buckeyes, who didn't have anyone other than Thomas average in double figures during the regular season.
"LaQuinton's a very dynamic player. He's a guy offensively who you wish you could be," said senior forward Evan Ravenel. "Offensively, he's got everything you need. Post up, shoot the three, dribble the ball, pass the ball, everything. So it's an extreme disadvantage to anybody -- a guard or a big -- who has to guard him."
Head coach Thad Matta said after the game that he knew he was going to have to use this "smaller" lineup at some point against the athletic, everyone-can-shoot Cyclones. They even considered starting the second half in that alignment to help combat getting hurt on the glass. When he did go to it, Ross paid almost immediate dividends, scoring all 10 Buckeye points in a 3:40 span where Ohio State extended a 55-51 lead to 12.
More importantly, Ross was not only on the floor for the Buckeyes' decisive final possession, he was the screener in the high pick-and-roll with Aaron Craft that forced an Iowa State switch. Craft then had a mismatch with Georges Niang that he exploited with a game-winning jump shot, and Iowa State's defensive reaction on that play likely was in part because Ross is such a legitimate threat on the pop.
One of the other primary options on the play was Deshaun Thomas, who popped out at the top of the key. Thomas, who took his own time to emerge as an underclassman, sees a lot of his earlier self in Ross.
"You need the other guy who comes off the bench and score. That's a little [like] me freshman year, coming off the bench and being that X-factor," Thomas said. "Him, he's getting the minutes, more minutes, and he's scoring real well. It's a mismatch nightmare when the 5-man's guarding him."
Ross' emergence could be a significant factor to watch against Sweet 16 opponent Arizona, especially when freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski isn't on the floor. Ross' length and skill set could be a nice counter to lanky, athletic Wildcats forwards Brandon Ashley and Angelo Chol. Then again, maybe it would be the right idea when Tarczewski is out on the floor, as well. After all, then he would be charged with checking either Ross or Thomas, a very difficult task for a freshman big ... or anyone else, really.
Just ask Ravenel, who sees Ross in practice all the time. "Having LaQuinton in there with Deshaun , who can stretch the floor, and LaQuinton who can stretch the floor and get to the rim on top of that, it's unreal what you can do with that," he said.