Those who sponsor the Wooden and Naismith awards issued their early-season watch lists in recent weeks, identifying several dozen players from across the country as candidates to be named college basketball’s best player at the end of the season.
LaQuinton Ross’ name is among them. But the Ohio State junior’s start to a much-anticipated season has been tough to watch, as has been an offense lacking the perimeter scoring punch he was expected to provide. Ross enrolled two years ago to much fanfare from recruiting mavens, but an academic issue delayed the start of his season and he played little.
He played more off the bench as a sophomore and showed flashes of his talent before exploding for 53 points in the Buckeyes’ last three games of the NCAA tournament. His three-pointer with two seconds left beat Arizona in the Sweet 16.
The run put the 6-foot-8, 220-pound wing on NBA mock draft boards, and when he decided to return to fill the void created by the departure of Deshaun Thomas, expectations were that he could become the go-to scorer Thomas was.
“I thought Ross would take on that role, and they would go to him the same kind of way,” Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman said after his team’s loss to OSU on Nov. 9.
Instead, through four games, the No. 8-ranked Buckeyes’ offense has been balanced, with five players having between 27 and 37 field goal attempts. Among the team’s top seven scorers, Ross ranks last in field goal percentage (.243) and three-point percentage (.267) and sixth in free throw percentage (.667). Last season, he shot .468 from the field, .389 from three and .776 from the line.
Not surprisingly, coach Thad Matta has been asked before and after recent games what is wrong with Ross, who was scoreless against Marquette on Nov. 16 and scored four points against American on Wednesday. Ross has not been made available to the media for the past two weeks.
While acknowledging that Ross has been playing through nagging hand and knee injuries for the past month, Matta said after the American game that he was “puzzled” by his play. But he was cryptic in his critique and said he was speaking about not only Ross.
“You’ve got to respect the game. You’ve got to respect the opponents,” Matta said. “You can’t make the same mistake over and over again without saying, ‘Wait a minute; this isn’t working. Let me try something different.’ I think that’s just having a feel for seeing what’s there and what needs to be done.”
Big Ten network analyst Jim Jackson said Ross at times tries to force his offense to the basket when defenses are packed in the lane because they do not respect the Buckeyes’ ability to hurt them from the perimeter. Much of Ross’ success late last season came in smaller lineups that stretched defenses more.
“He wants to be aggressive, which is good,” Jackson said. “But you’ve got to understand, ‘OK, I may not be able to get all the way to the basket. Let me make a play.’ I think he’s trying so hard to put the ball in the basket, he’s making some of the easier plays more difficult, and you see what happens.”
WBNS radio analyst Ron Stokes said Ross also is adjusting from playing a role off the bench to being a key component in the offense and a “marked man” on opponents’ scouting reports.
“So it’s going to be tougher for him to get his game off, which is going to equate to him having to work harder,” Stokes said. “He’s going to have to get in the gym more, look at tape more. He’s going to have to work on his jump shot. He’s going to have to go to Plan B because teams are going to take away Plan A.
“I think he can do that. It’s just going to take some time. But right now, he’s thinking more than playing.”