BOSTON -- When Deshaun Thomas entered the Ohio State program, he did it in the shadow of highly touted classmate Jared Sullinger. Hardly an afterthought as a McDonald's All-American, but certainly not the prize of the recruiting class.
Buckeyes head man Thad Matta and strength and conditioning coach Dave Richardson immediately took the route of bulking up the 6-foot-7 Thomas, adding 20 pounds to his frame. Thomas, always known as a scorer, was still able to put the ball in the basket -- but wasn't able to remain on the court due to his inability to guard and play long stretches without being fatigued.
On Thursday night, Thomas never left the court in the first half against Cincinnati, playing all 20 minutes and scoring 20 points before the break.
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"He was the key for us tonight," Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft said following the 81-66 victory that put the Buckeyes in the Elite Eight. "He kept us in the game in the first half."
Last year was a challenge. If he wasn't making shots, there was little reason to have Thomas in the game.
"He tried so hard last year, but every time we put him in the game, teams just went right at him," Matta said.
It was late in the season that Matta and Richardson got together and decided that they would reverse field with Thomas, instead electing to have him shed the weight he gained.
"The weight he put on affected his movement and his ability to get up and down the floor," Richardson said. "It just wasn't going to work."
Now Thomas is down to 214 pounds and has become a difficult match-up. Still regarded for his offensive exploits, he's become a solid defender --- clear by the job he's done recently on Michigan State's Draymond Green, Purdue's Robbie Hummel and Gonzaga's Elias Harris.
"I'll be honest," Thomas said. "Last year coming off the bench, I just wanted to score."
That was no secret. Now he does more than just score.
It wasn't an easy task for Thomas, though, replacing the do-it-all veteran David Lighty in the starting lineup, a mammoth task for a guy who was considered one-dimensional. Lighty was a fan-favorite, the guy who could score, rebound, pass and was also one of the most versatile defenders in the country.
"It was tough," Thomas admitted. "Dave Lighty was the heart and soul of this team. He did everything."
On a night where senior William Buford and the defensive-minded Craft were no-shows on the offensive end in the first half, it was Thomas who carried the Buckeyes. Thomas and Sullinger managed to outscore Cincinnati in the first half, Thomas making 8 of 12 shots while Sullinger nearly added a double-double with 10 points and nine boards by the time the two teams went into the locker room.
Ohio State took a 12-point lead into the second half, but the Bearcats wouldn't go away -- even taking the lead on Cashmere Wright's 3-pointer with 14 minutes left in the game. Cincinnati did a solid job taking away Thomas, for the most part, in the second 20 minutes -- but that opened it up for his teammates. Craft started to get hot on both ends of the court, Sullinger took advantage of fewer double-teams and Thomas still managed to play a critical role down the stretch with high IQ plays.
"He takes good shots now," Craft said of Thomas. "Last year it was really tough to get the ball back when we gave it to him."
Ohio State now advances to play Syracuse with a Final Four berth on the line. This is a Buckeyes group that many feel underachieved this season. It was a team selected as one of the elite entering the season, but one that finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten regular-season title with Michigan State and Michigan and one that lost in the league tournament championship game. Despite a subpar (and that's putting it nicely) performance from Buford, the Buckeyes survived against sixth-seeded Cincinnati. Thomas led all scorers with 26 points, grabbed seven rebounds and was solid on the defensive end.
"Everything to do with offense," Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith said. "Deshaun is all about it."
That's the old Deshaun Thomas. The new one can score -- and isn't a liability on the other end of the floor. While Sullinger drew the assignment of containing Bearcats man-child Yancy Gates, Thomas provided support in holding him to just seven points and five boards. He was also agile enough to chase around Cincinnati's guards on the perimeter.
That wouldn't have been possible a year ago.
"Not a chance," Thomas said.