DeSHaun_ThomasThis one was hard to see coming.

Heading into the Elite Eight, Deshaun Thomas is suddenly the Buckeyes’ best hope for Tournament success. How did that happen?

A year ago, he was a nice player in theory. Other than his status as a former Indiana Mr. Basketball and four-star recruit, all Ohio State fans knew about him was that he was a talented young player who loved to score but not to play defense. His coach called him Shaun, promising to call him by his full name when he stepped up on D. Most believed him to be a potential star in the future, but nobody anticipated the trajectory his career has taken in the 2011-12 season.

In November, he was the Buckeyes’ fourth man. Maybe he’d step up when Jared Sullinger got himself into foul trouble.

In March, he’s arguably a better NBA prospect than Sullinger, the pride of the Buckeyes, the focus of the national conversation about the team, and the team’s designated lottery pick. Sullinger’s draft stock may not drop out of lottery range, but he’s lost his luster. Suddenly, his career seems to have peaked. Skills develop, but God-given athleticism doesn’t, which is Sully’s biggest weakness.

DeShaun Thomas doesn’t share that problem. He’s a dynamic scorer, but he’s also a matchup nightmare. He’s a wingman who can post up. But at the same time, he’s a big man who can shoot effectively behind the arc. That’s a dangerous combination in college basketball. It’s also a prototype for a capable NBA player.

It’s also the reason that Thomas has emerged as a countrywide force in the NCAA Tournament. In two games, he’s averaging 24.5 points per game, complemented by 9.5 rebounds. Those are elite numbers, and he’s receiving the attention he deserves for them. Most national media outlets focused on Sullinger, William Buford and Aaron Craft when dissecting the Buckeyes’ chances to reach the Final Four when the Buckeyes came in to the NCAA Tournament. All of those men are crucial to this team’s success. But as the team enters the round of eight, those same media outlets have refocused their attention on DeShaun Thomas.

Just in time, too. Thursday night, the Buckeyes took on their sometimes in-state rivals, the Cincinnati Bearcats. UC is a team that starts 4 guards and focuses their game around a powerful big man, Yancy Gates, who finished with just seven points and five rebounds last night. Their guards were similarly evenly matched with Craft, Buford, and Lenzelle Smith. That left Deshaun Thomas. There’s not a player on Cincinnati’s roster that could match his combination of size and athleticism and his diverse scoring abilities – and it showed as DeShaun went for 26 more points and 7 more rebounds.

The Buckeyes’ advancement into the Elite Eight is in very large part due to the efforts and performance of one Mr. Deshaun Thomas. He’s absolutely crucial to the success of the 2011-12 Buckeyes. But what about the 2012-13 edition?

Speculation has been rampant in the past month, as Deshaun Thomas has elevated the level of his game, that he’ll leave Columbus for more lucrative pastures in the NBA next season. A consensus has developed among Ohio State fans that Thomas leaves if Sullinger leaves too. It won’t be as simple as that. Sullinger has far more incentive to bolt than Thomas does. Thomas is just now refining his game. Another year with Thad Matta could turn him from a Tournament hero into a national star. It’s almost a given that his stock will go up. Simultaneously, Sullinger seems to have plateaued. He needs to get out while he can, because if he stays and doesn’t find a way to continue improving his game, his stock will only go down.

That said, Thomas choosing to leave wouldn’t be a terrible mistake. He’s a talented player and, more importantly, he’s found a way to maximize that talent for Ohio State this season. He’ll get paid. And he’ll probably be an effective NBA player in time.

But if he returned, he could be special. It would be exhilarating to see Thomas step into the primary scorer role, with the departures of Sullinger and Buford. If Matta’s younger pieces develop (Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson), a Thomas-led 2012-13 version of the Buckeyes could be both more likeably and more exciting than this year’s team. The loss of Thomas and, consequently, that possibility, would be painful for Ohio State fans.

That pain would be compounded by the fact that Thomas is so damn likeable. For a man who doesn’t say much, he’s got a magnetic presence on the court. And when the ball doesn’t bounce his way, he shuts up.

But that’s thinking ahead. Enjoy this Tournament, and the show Thomas is likely to put on against the Orangemen. Enjoy it while you can. Before it’s gone.

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