All it took was three games.
After ho-hum performances in a trio of season-opening warmups against Robert Morris, Charleston Southern and Eastern Illinois, Bruce Thornton hit his stride. The highly-touted freshman point guard rattled off a subsequent nine-game run in which Chris Holtmann could hardly take him off the floor.
Thornton averaged 12.6 points, shot well over 50% from the floor and 3-point range and dished 3.4 assists per game as the Buckeyes went 6-3 from Nov. 21 to Dec. 29. Thornton finished with double-digit scoring numbers in eight of those nine contests, logged an average of 31.5 minutes per game and dropped a season-high 17 points on two occasions. And it looked like it would only be the beginning for the Georgia native.
Then came January.
The difference was night and day for Thornton, who averaged just 5.4 points per game, hit 27.4% of his field goals and only dolled out 2.1 assists during Ohio State’s nine games last month. As Thornton struggled, so did the Buckeyes, who dropped seven of their nine games in January to fall out of Big Ten contendership – and perhaps even NCAA Tournament talks.
The freshman wall is no myth, and Thornton said he ran straight into it at the start of the new year.
“It definitely hit me. You get to a point where you start doubting yourself,” Thornton said in an interview at the Schottenstein Center Tuesday. “Me, it took some maturing, especially (when coaches asked me to step up as a leader). I need to keep my head high. I know if I keep working, do everything I do every single day, I’ll get out of it.”
Thornton shot just 2-for-12 from the floor combined as Ohio State split its first two games of the month, but he said the internal anguish didn’t truly begin until after the next game. The Buckeyes lost to Maryland on the road on Jan. 8 to drop back-to-back contests for the first time all year.
Thornton played his fewest minutes in more than a month during a performance in which he hit just two of his seven shot attempts and finished with one assist.
“It really hit me after the Maryland game. I just wasn’t feeling myself. I thought I was going to get out of it, but I really had to take some time out for myself to figure out what’s going on, have some conversations with the coaches,” Thornton said. “I’m still trying to figure it out and get out of it. I’ve got my coaches and teammates behind me. I have every opportunity to be the best me I can be every single day.”
For Thornton, the daily wear-and-tear of a college season is a whole new ballgame. He might have known what was coming upon entering the program this summer, but actually experiencing it is a different story.
“Probably the grind of the season (contributed to those doubts), for sure. Playing this long, working out this consistently, make sure you’re doing something every day. You’re not used to that as a freshman,” Thornton said. “You’ve got games, then the Big Ten, then the NCAA Tournament. That stuff’s ahead of us. You’ve got to mature real fast in this league.”
To make matters worse, Thornton suffered a wrist injury early in the month that caused his on-court performance to wane. Thornton said it bothered him a lot and that “I couldn’t really shoot it like I wanted to.” The four-star recruit didn’t place all of the blame for his slump on the injury, but said “it did take a toll on me.”
“It’s hard. Definitely playing in the Big Ten, the scouting and everything goes to a whole different level. It’s just me staying confident, staying aggressive throughout the whole thing."– Bruce Thornton on his recent struggles
Thornton said his wrist has returned to full strength as Ohio State moves into February, but that while playing through the ailment, he had multiple conversations with the Buckeye coaching staff about the realities of Big Ten basketball.
“They just be real with me and be very transparent with me. They tell me, you’re never going to be 100% the rest of the season,” Thornton said. “Playing in this league and the tournament as well, you’re going to have to be ready. You’re not going to be 100%, but you’ve always got to be ready to play the next game.”
The bumps and bruises that come along with the Big Ten’s physical brand of basketball aren’t the only hardships for a true freshman in league play. Thornton said opponents have been adept at scouting Ohio State tendencies, which is a sentiment assistant coach Jake Diebler brought up last week.
But Thornton said if he brings the aggressiveness he’s shown in practice into games moving forward, it will help him break out of his recent slump.
“It’s hard. Definitely playing in the Big Ten, the scouting and everything goes to a whole different level,” Thornton said. “It’s just me staying confident, staying aggressive throughout the whole thing. That’s the main thing with me. As a point guard, you being aggressive and confident, everybody still has to watch out for you as well, being a facilitator. Really finding a balance for all three and I feel like we’ll be all right.”
Thornton’s dealt with plenty of issues over the past month, but none of that stopped him from continuing to evolve into a leader for the Buckeyes both on and off the court. Chris Holtmann said the coaching staff has met with Ohio State’s captains (Justice Sueing, Zed Key and Isaac Likekele) amid the team’s recent struggles, and that Thornton was added to that group.
Thornton said Holtmann’s implored him to be vocal as the team’s starting point guard, and that he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity. As a result, Thornton is now a captain in everything but name for the Buckeyes.
“It was a new experience, especially with guys who are four or five years older than you,” Thornton said. “Just talking to them with respect, know that even though I’m trying to win it still comes from respect and a respectful manner straight out of love like a brother. At any time they can yell at me or I can yell at them and it’s out of respect.”
Whether leadership comes from a true freshman or a multi-year veteran, the Buckeyes need it in abundance right now. Thornton’s far from the only Ohio State player who struggled in January, and the scarlet and gray will watch their NCAA Tournament hopes slip away if they don’t turn things around in a hurry.
“I feel like we can do a way better job. That’s where I come and use my voice and say how I feel about certain situations,” Thornton said. “I feel like when we come together, it’ll all come about. … It’s been rough. I feel like we still have an opportunity to do things we want to do. We’ve just got to stay in the moment. We can’t look too far ahead. We definitely can’t look in the past. We have every chance like everybody else.”