Deshaun Thomas scored 3,018 points in high school, the third most in the hallowed history of Indiana hoops. His range began when he stepped over half-court, and his only bad shots were the ones he didn't take. "The green light was neon green," the 6'7" Thomas says with a laugh about his four years at Bishop Luers High in Fort Wayne. "I loved it."
But during his first two seasons at Ohio State, coach Thad Matta stressed red lights—as in shutting down opponents—which explains Thomas's stop-and-go (or go-and-stop?) career in Columbus. After mostly resting on the back line of a zone in high school, he saw plenty of dirty looks and quick hooks his freshman year as he struggled to learn help-side defense and to fill gaps in Matta's man-to-man system. "I got burned a lot," Thomas says. Matta recalls a lot of exasperating moments: "He was so naive."
Thomas needed to think less and react more on defense. By late last season he was drawing key assignments, such as Purdue's Robbie Hummel and Michigan State's Draymond Green, and bragging about holding his man below his scoring average. While Thomas won't be confused with Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft—the country's best defender—he has come a long way, both on and off the court. "When he got here, he couldn't look people in the eye," Matta says. "Now he has a conversation and is jovial in everything that he does."
Ohio State's Final Four run last March offered a glimpse of what this year could be like for Thomas. He averaged 21.8 points (up from 15.9 in the regular season) before shooting 3 for 14 against Kansas in the national semifinal. Known by teammates as Thomas the Tank, the powerful lefty has worked on coming off ball screens and creating off the dribble to prep for his role as the Buckeyes' go-to scorer.
So will Thomas's shooting light turn neon green again? "It depends," says Matta, "if [the shots] are going in or not."
ROUND OF 32
ROUND OF 64
Projected Starting Five
COACH Thad Matta (9th season)
2011--12 RECORD 31--8 BIG TEN 13--5 (T-1st)
WHAT'S BACK Minutes: 63.2% Points: 53.3% Rebounds: 52.2%
12 STRAIGHT seasons in which Thad Matta has won at least 20 games, including his stints at Butler and Xavier. Only Gonzaga's Mark Few, with 13, has a longer active streak to start a head coaching career.
DESHAUN THOMAS Now that he has learned to stop opponents on D, his coach has given the junior forward a green light on offense.