Lenzelle Smith Jr. has a lot on his mind, which is obvious when he speaks. The Ohio State guard is what you might call a volume talker, not because of his decibel level but because of his word count. Ask him a question and be prepared to listen for a while.
Smith had not been heard from, figuratively or literally, in the few weeks before the Buckeyes’ game against Illinois.
The team’s second-leading scorer shot better than 50 percent from the field and nearly 40 from three-point range during Ohio State’s 15-0 start. But then his face joined his teammates’ on the side of a milk carton. Barely anything was heard from him — except clanks — as the Buckeyes lost four games in a row for the first time in six years.
“It’s a mental thing,” Smith said. “Sometimes I get in a state of mind of, ‘Aw, you miss a shot, maybe you should try to get in the paint now and try to get a layup.’ ”
When he missed his first two three-point attempts on Thursday night against Illinois and didn’t attempt another field goal of any sort in the first 16 minutes, his teammates were not going to allow him to retreat into his shell again, not with the team shooting less than 30 percent in the game and a fifth consecutive Big Ten loss looming.
“These two specifically,” Smith said, nodding toward Aaron Craft and LaQuinton Ross, “they were yelling at me, ‘Why are you not shooting the ball?’ That kind of gave me extra motivation. If they want me to shoot, that’s my job on this team, and I’m going to shoot.
“Luckily, down the stretch, it came through for us.”
Smith made two threes in the last 3:08 of the first half to bring cut the Buckeyes’ deficit to a point at the break. He made two more in the second half, the last with only a second left on the shot clock to put Ohio State ahead 58-50 with 1:15 left. Ohio State won 62-55.
“That probably takes him up to about 6 percent now in the Big Ten. So we are jacked up,” coach Thad Matta joked.
Smith entered the Illinois game shooting 16 percent from three-point range and 35.1 percent overall, and averaging 8.7 points in Big Ten play, down from 44.6 from three-point range, 52.9 overall and 13.4 points during the nonconference schedule. His free-throw shooting also had regressed, from 81.3 percent to 61.5.
Smith’s four threes against Illinois were his most in a game since Nov. 25.
“Honestly,” Matta said, “I’m happy for Lenzelle because he has been diligent the last few days, in (the gym) working and trying to get everything right. You see that, that’s what excites you as a coach and you’re happy for him when it goes in.”
Ohio State, which next plays Wednesday night against Penn State at Value City Arena, needs Smith to help stretch defenses, be they zone or man-to-man, so Craft and others have adequate room to drive the ball and create more opportunities for open shots.
“Having a guy who can stretch the floor out, a guy you can drive it and not expect his guy to help, things like that really open up the floor for the guards and even for Amir (Williams),” Craft said. “Being able to throw it in the post and not worry about (a double-team), that’s a huge, huge thing that probably makes us the best team we can be.”
Craft said after the loss at Minnesota 11 days ago that the next step for the Buckeyes was for the players to hold one another more accountable than they had been because “it’s very easy to just sit back and expect someone to do it on their own.
“Not that we’re going to yell at each other or put pressure on one another,” he said. “It’s encouragement, it’s positive reinforcement, it’s whatever we have to do to help people get out of whatever they may be struggling with.”
Craft and Ross helped Smith break his silence last week.
“Early in the year, he shot the ball the best he’s shot since he’s been here,” Craft said. “So we know it’s inside. We know he’s definitely capable. Once he finds that again, it’s only going to make us better.”