|Lenzelle Smith's sophomore year has been uneventful until dropping 28 points on Indiana. (AP)|
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Aaron Craft can relate to Lenzelle Smith's situation. Playing alongside Jared Sullinger, William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler, Craft found himself wide open as his defender would often leave him to double-team virtually anyone else on the team.
Craft made enough shots -- and enough plays -- to keep defenses honest, and that's part of what made Ohio State such a juggernaut offensively.
Smith, a somewhat anonymous sophomore guard who has started all 18 games this season, has been terrific on the defensive end thus far this season. And while he leads the team percentage-wise from beyond the arc, he hasn't earned any respect from opponents. Nearly every opponent has opted to dare him to drill wide-open shots and put forth the bulk of their defensive efforts on the four remaining Buckeyes on the floor.
That may change after his 28-point performance in the Buckeyes 80-63 victory over Indiana on Sunday afternoon.
It needs to change.
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It's difficult to play 4-on-5 -- and at times, that's the hand Ohio State has been dealt with Smith being a non-factor on the offensive end. There's Sullinger, Buford and a streaky Deshaun Thomas. Craft is a floor leader who picks his spots for his scoring opportunities, but he's struggled to make shots from beyond the arc this season.
That's why the Buckeyes sorely could use Smith to step up.
Sullinger was solid with 16 points and nine boards. Buford finished with a modest dozen points and hardly looked the part of someone who may threaten the school's all-time scoring mark. Thomas chipped in with 11 points and Craft did what he does -- putting up eight points with seven assists and no turnovers.
Smith was the difference-maker. He outscored Indiana, 18-14, at halftime and his 18 points were already a career-high.
"Most teams are leaving me open," Smith said. "I need to knock those shots down."
Smith said one of the differences on Sunday was that his teammates recognized he was open and fed him the ball. He was 10 of 12 from the field and made 4 of 5 from beyond the arc as the Buckeyes crushed Indiana in a game that wasn't even as close as the final 17-point margin would indicate.
"It's the first time he took them with confidence," Ohio State assistant coach Dave Dickerson said. "He needs something like this today in order to gain their trust."
"It's all about Lenzelle being focused," Craft said. "When he's focused, he can be really good."
Sullinger and Craft said they were immune to the recent criticism about the team, one which had lost in Bloomington to Indiana and also on the road against Illinois in the past couple weeks. The skeptics had started to question whether this was, in fact, an elite team, one capable of cutting down the nets in New Orleans in early April.
"We don't care. We don't listen," Sullinger said. "We just came out and played our game."
"Everyone has ups and downs," he added. "We'd rather get them early rather than later."
It sure looked like this team, the one that plastered Indiana on Sunday, would be capable of going toe-to-toe against anyone in the country, whether it be Syracuse, Kentucky or Baylor. But much of the reason was the contribution of Smith, who entered the game averaging 5.2 points per game and didn't warrant any respect from the Hoosiers on the offensive end.
Let's face it: If Sullinger, Buford and Thomas hadn't been in major foul trouble in Bloomington a couple weeks ago, the Buckeyes likely would have won the first round against the Hoosiers. If Sullinger had been healthy and able to play in Phog Allen against Kansas, Ohio State may have won that one, also. Then there was the 43-point outburst from Illinois guard Brandon Paul last week.
"We're not losing to bad teams," Craft said. "But it's been an eye-opener for us. We've had success in the past, but it doesn't automatically mean it'll be that way in the future."
Ohio State isn't as intimidating as a year ago, when they had five guys who could all hurt you. It was pick your poison. If you doubled Sullinger, it left someone else open on the perimeter. If you chose to defend the big man straight up, well, that was a dangerous plan that rarely worked.
For at least one game this season, the Buckeyes had threats all over the court.
"It adds another element for us," Matta said.
Now we'll see if it stays that way.