It’s not uncommon for opposing coaches to sit in the Value City Arena interview room and unleash a string of praise. Mike Krzyzewski has done it. Billy Donovan also has. Bill Self too. But they were all talking about Aaron Craft and the feisty guard’s defensive prowess.
In the aftermath of Ohio State’s 64-46 win over Minnesota Saturday night, Richard Pitino let loose a minute-long speech about Sam Thompson. The first-year head coach showered Thompson, who scored a season-high 19 points in the victory, with hosannas and acclaim.
“I love Sam. I recruited him at Florida," said Pitino, who was an assistant to Donovan in Gainesville from 2009-11. “I think he’s a really good player. I wanted him at Florida, and I thought we were going to get him at Florida. He’s got great, great potential. Great kid, great family. It’s what college basketball is all about.”
On Saturday, Pitino probably wished Thompson had gone to Florida. Or anywhere other than Ohio State. With the Golden Gophers cruising, up 12 in the second half, Thompson and the Buckeyes came alive. A 17-0 run grew to 27-5, including 10 consecutive points by Thompson.
A listless Ohio State team shot 56.7 percent in the second half, outscoring Minnesota by 28 points. Thompson scored 16 of his 19 points after halftime.
“I’m getting into a pretty good rhythm right now,” said Thompson, who averaged 15 points in two wins last week.
The Gophers’ NCAA Tournament hopes faded in a matter of minutes, while the Buckeyes increased their chances of a Big Ten Tournament bye. Most of the 18,809 in attendance were stunned to see such a turnaround after Ohio State played arguably its worst 20 minutes of the season in the first half.
“It’s a desperation game from here on out,” Thompson said. “Every game we play is desperation. Every game we play is a must-win situation. When you play like you have to win, when you play like there’s no tomorrow, good things are going to happen.”
It’s been seven games since Thompson was thrust into the starting lineup, replacing Shannon Scott to breakup a two-point guard system. Ohio State has gone 6-1 after losing four of its previous five games. The first five games in the new lineup were nondescript as far as Thompson’s performance.
“Great kid, great family. It’s what college basketball is all about.”– Richard Pitino
His scoring output was actually under his 7.5-point season average. But he’s shot 11-of-17 from the field and 5-of-9 from three-point range in the past two games. He’s also record six rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Getting airborne comes as easy for Thompson as asking Larry Bird to make a jump shot. During the Buckeyes’ pivotal run against Minnesota, Thompson offered an exclamation point in the form of a thunderous alley-oop dunk.
It appears for the second straight season that Thompson is getting hot when the magnitude rises. In Ohio State’s march to the Elite Eight a season ago, he became an offensive force, a player pegged low on the scouting report that consistently created headaches.
“Sam is one of those guys in his three years here, he’s worn a lot of different hats for this program,” head coach Thad Matta said. “The fact that he scored the ball at a pretty high level the last few games, I hope he can continue that, because that position definitely opens up a lot of things for us.”
Thompson is only the team’s sixth-leading scorer, though he looks accustomed to the spotlight and could be a frequent occupant. With a range of skills – defense, shot, athleticism, etc. – he could develop into one of the conference’s most dangerous players. Versatility led Thompson to being a coveted recruit, as Pitino alluded to.
It can be argued that Thompson should have been in the starting lineup from the beginning, way back when Ohio State opened the 2013-14 season in November. A faster tempo – yes, this is basketball; not football – and dependable points from Thompson could be the difference between an early March exit and deep tournament run. The Buckeyes have played on the second weekend a nation-best four consecutive seasons.
During the Matta era, few players have been more selfless than Thompson. He’s the ultimate team-first competitor. But it’s becoming clearer that he needs to become more selfish and take control on the offensive end. Or some might say that’s just another example of putting the team as the top priority.
But don’t forget this is the same player that hasn’t reached double figures in 11 of 15 Big Ten games. If you chew on that, though, one must also examine the before and after data regarding Thompson’s status as a starter. He was a 30 percent three-point shooter coming off the bench. That percentage is above 50 as a starter.
“Just keep attacking and be aggressive,” Thompson said.