Smile, Buckeyes fans. Ohio State’s overtime loss to hated rival Michigan on Tuesday should leave you smirking, not smarting.
Get over the sting of the loss. Block out images of Tim Hardaway’s 3-point barrage, Mitch McGary’s thunderous slams and DeShaun Thomas standing idly in the extra session, never once touching the ball. Put aside, for a moment, the slapdash late-game execution, the swallowed whistles in crunch time and Aaron Craft’s recklessness with the game on the line. Pop in a recording of the first meeting in Columbus to lift your spirits, if you must.
The outcome of Tuesday’s showdown in Ann Arbor matters little at all, unless empty bragging rights is your aim. Part two of the rivalry offered a breakthrough far more important to Ohio State’s long-term health than any singular win or loss in the standings. It offered LaQuinton Ross’s coming out party. And now that this party has begun, the Buckeyes are in position to do a lot more celebrating from now through March.
One-fourth of a heralded sophomore class, Ross has been the brightest youngin of all for the scarlet and grey. That was established even before Tuesday’s tilt against Michigan, when the Jackson, Mississippi native posted his most impressive game as a collegian to date. Ross poured in 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting while pulling down five offensive rebounds to one-up McGary, Michigan’s hotshot freshman big. The second-year forward was the best player on the floor for a Buckeyes team that kept pace with the third-ranked Wolverines for nearly 45 minutes. Message sent and received.
Amir Williams wasn’t too shabby himself. The sophomore pivot let loose his inner beast at Crisler Arena, controlling the paint via four blocks and a handful of big-time buckets in the second half. It was the first time this season Williams has strung together strong performances in back-to-back games. Consider that a watershed moment in the young Buck[eye]’s career.
Shannon Scott is primarily a defensive specialist at this stage of his development, erratic with the basketball in-hand despite the shiftiness and speed to activate his scoring potential. Sam Thompson, meanwhile, is little more than an exciting athlete with the capability of producing a signature highlight on any play. Expectations should be tempered for these two late bloomers, not Ross or his frontcourt classmate.
The two biggest knocks on Ross coming out of high school – reasons why he fell from a consensus blue-chip recruit to an overlooked 4-star prospect during his senior year – were his suspect passion for the game and questionable toughness. Williams drew similar criticisms regarding his physicality (or lack thereof). So much for those reviews.
More than a road win over bitter rival Michigan, Ohio State needed a jolt inside, preferably from one of its heralded sophomores. Mission accomplished. Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr. finally have a scoring sidekick on the interior.
If the maturation of Ross continues the rest of the season, fans two months from now won’t remember the final score of the February 5 clash in Ann Arbor. They’ll remember the game instead as the genesis of LaQuinton Ross, the moment Ohio State’s Final Four potential first became realized.