Richard Pitino's postgame press conference Wednesday was short, sweet and straight to the point.
The Minnesota head coach answered only a handful of questions from reporters and spoke for just over three minutes. Pitino was clearly frustrated by his team's fourth-consecutive loss as the Gophers fell 78-72 to Ohio State.
But when Pitino was asked about Trevor Thompson, the Buckeyes' big man who dominated Wednesday's game with a 19-point, 10-rebound performance, he offered quite the compliment.
"He was terrific," Pitino said. "He's probably the most improved player in the conference in my opinion and they went to him early and we've got to do a better job."
There is some competition for that notion — Purdue's Caleb Swanigan and Northwestern's Scottie Lindsey to name a couple — but there's no doubt Thompson is at least one of the conference's most improved players and Ohio State certainly needed his breakout season.
Through 21 games, the 7-footer is averaging 11.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. In eight Big Ten games, those averages jump up a bit to 11.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest. Thompson has seven double-doubles this season for the Buckeyes.
But it's also about more than just statistics with Thompson. Ohio State is now starting to run its offense through the Indianapolis native. The Buckeyes are running sets, drawing up plays to get him isolated on the block and letting him go to work inside. That's not something that's been an option for Ohio State since Jared Sullinger. Dominant post play lacked.
It's a role Thompson said he's certainly comfortable with.
“My biggest thing is I just want to win so if I’m put in the position to help the team win then I’m going to do it to the best of my ability and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got," he said. "I feel like anybody on our team, if we really needed a bucket, we could go to. But my biggest thing is I just want to win and if it’s thrown into me and I have an opportunity to help the team win then that’s what I want."
“My biggest thing is I just want to win so if I’m put in the position to help the team win then I’m going to do it to the best of my ability and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”– Trevor Thompson
Thompson struggled to stay on the floor last season, his first in Columbus after a transfer from Virginia Tech. He was often in foul trouble and never really got into the flow of many games as Ohio State coach Thad Matta often rotated Thompson and Daniel Giddens at the center spot. Thompson averaged 6.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in just 17.9 minutes per game a year ago.
But he's staying on the floor now and the Buckeyes are reaping the benefits. After coming off the bench for the first 11 games of the season, Thompson started the last 10. His minutes increased as he's now averaging 23.1 per game — 26.1 in Big Ten play — and Thompson's 32 minutes Wednesday against Minnesota were his second most this season.
“I think when Trevor is engaged, I think he’s as good as anybody," Matta said. "There’s moments where he can get out of sync and as long as we can get him back in and he lets us coach him and get him back into the fold of what we’re trying to do, he’s very effective."
"He’s a guy that obviously we need to play well and just do what he’s supposed to do. When he does that, good things happen.”
Following the end of last season, Thompson decided to take advantage of a new college basketball rule that allowed players to declare for the NBA Draft but gave the option to return to school following an evaluation period. Many scoffed when Thompson announced his intentions to go pro being that there wasn't much of a realistic chance he would be invited to the NBA Combine let alone drafted.
Thompson decided to return to Ohio State for his junior season as expected but said he learned valuable lessons throughout the process that he hoped would help him improve as a player.
It's paying off now for both Thompson and Ohio State.
“Trevor is a kid that cares," Matta said. "He cares about winning, he cares about his teammates, he cares about the program. I’m happy for him.”