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August 16, 2011MORE: Five-Star Tracker: How they fared as freshmen
Not many teams have the luxury of adding a five-star forward and being content with him being a sparkplug off the bench.
Forward Deshaun Thomas, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., who was the 22nd-ranked prospect in the 2010 class, could have started for most teams around the country. But for the veteran Buckeyes, Thomas was the second man off the bench.
In three months, that changes.
"Deshaun obviously had a good freshman season; he was a sparkplug off the bench for us," Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals said. "We're going to count on him a little bit more to contribute this year than last year. He understood that before last season."
Despite being a potential No. 1 overall pick, Sullinger returned to school for his sophomore season, making the Buckeyes the preseason favorite in the Big Ten. His plans to shed weight and play at 255 pounds (from 280) have been the buzz around the team. But the key to Ohio State's season could be Thomas' transition from bit player to starter.
Ohio State lost three starters - David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale - from last season, meaning the Buckeyes lose their top defender, their top shooter and a veteran big man.
Thomas needs to have a hand in making up the difference in each area, and his role in the success or failure of Ohio State's 2011-12 season isn't lost on Thomas.
"The expectations are high this year," he said. "They're expecting big things from me."
First, Thomas - a 6-foot-7, 215-pounder - needs to prepare for the workload. He averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game last season and saw his role diminish as Ohio State moved to a six-man rotation during Big Ten play.
Thomas said he shed about 10 pounds through an offseason conditioning program, running sprints and playing six to 10 pickup games each day.
"I'm trying to get my motor going, trying to get ready to play minutes I'm going to play" he said.
He began last season as a starter, averaging nearly 17 minutes as of Dec. 27, the final game before conference play. But once the competition improved, Thomas became the seventh man on a short bench. In Big Ten play, Thomas averaged only 11.8 minutes per game.
Classmates Sullinger and Aaron Craft earned significant playing time and off-court accolades - Sullinger was an All-American and Craft was the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year as a point guard.
"It was kind of difficult, but it's life," Thomas said. "[Sullinger and Craft] led me to keep my head up high and that it's a learning process. I had a great freshman year; we went undefeated at home. That was a great accomplishment."
Though he was a five-star prospect, he needed polish in some areas. He sometimes lacked patience with his shot, taking a bad one rather than looking to pass or find a better opportunity. For instance, he was 2-of-11 in a win over Minnesota and missed all six of his shots, including three from 3-point range, in a Feb. 20 setback to Purdue, one of Ohio State's three losses of the season.
But coaches want Thomas to shoot often this season.
"That's who Deshaun is: He's wired to score," Boals said. "... With experience, he might learn a little better shot selection and how to get certain shots different ways. Coach [Thad] Matta is the type of the guy where if he's going to recruit the best in the country, he's going to let them play."
Thomas did have some big moments last season. He was instrumental in both wins over Illinois. On Jan. 22, Ohio State trailed the Illini at halftime, but the Buckeyes went on a 14-0 run to take a 56-50 lead. Thomas hit a 3-pointer to cap the run, finishing with eight points (on 3-of-4 shooting) in 12 minutes. In the second meeting, he and Lighty combined for 19 points in a seven-and-half minute span to help put away the Illini in an 89-70 win. And in a rout of Indiana, Thomas scored 22 points in 29 minutes, going 7-of-9 from the floor.
Thomas also was Ohio State's best player on the offensive glass, picking up more offensive rebounds than Sullinger on a per-minute basis.
"There were some games where Deshaun was a huge spark for us and there were other games where he didn't do as much," Boals said. "Sometimes that can be frustrating for a kid coming in, but with his attitude and his mindset, he handled it very well. He'll use those experiences going into this season being more prepared, physically and mentally."
Beyond the on-court production lost by the three departed seniors, Ohio State needs to replace their leadership from last season. How the team will jell remains a mystery, especially when 11 of the 13 players on the roster are freshmen and sophomores. Returning starter William Buford, a senior, and Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel, a junior, are the only upperclassmen on the roster.
"That will be one of the question marks going into this year," Boals said. "You're not going to find that out until you face some adversity, but as far as character and type of kids, last year was probably the best group of kids off the floor and on the floor, chemistry-wise, that I've been around."
For Thomas' part, he plans to follow the lead of Lighty and the others. He remembers getting phone calls from Lighty when he was a recruit and remembers the energy Lighty and Diebler brought to practice.
"This year we're talking about not letting anyone in our circle," Thomas said. "The chemistry is still the same. We're not letting anyone come between our team. Once we let people in, we start to think of things individually and not as a team."
Still, as an individual, Thomas could determine how much Ohio State resembles the team that went 34-3 and won the Big Ten last season. "He's put himself into position where he's going to make a big jump," Boals said.
If Thomas does make that jump, Ohio State again could be a national championship contender.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.