Before Loyola-Maryland faced Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, there were two Buckeyes that Greyhounds coach Jimmy Patsos said his team had to worry about. One was Jared Sullinger, one of the best big men in the country. The other? Deshaun Thomas.
Despite being less heralded, Thomas has far exceeded Sullinger’s performance in the tournament, taking advantage of the double-teams and the extra attention that Sullinger draws. The forward scored 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against Loyola in the first round, then added 18 points and 7 rebounds against Gonzaga, pushing the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16. He was at it again Thursday night, scoring a game-high 26 points and adding seven rebounds in an 81-66 win over Cincinnati.
“Deshaun is a scorer, so he’s going to find ways to score the basketball, if it’s off the offensive rebound, pick and pop, creating his own shot,’’ Sullinger said after the Gonzaga game. “We don’t worry about him. Once he makes a bucket, it’s going to keep flowing.’’
Thomas did draw more defenders against the Bulldogs, leading to a 15-minute drought. But he overcame the defense and continued to be an offensive force.
The sophomore averaged 15.9 points and 5.3 rebounds this season, improvement he attributed to growing confidence. But it hasn’t been just Thomas’s offense that’s been notable of late.
“I think one of the biggest things that Deshaun is doing over the past few games that isn’t getting noticed as much is his defensive effort,’’ point guard Aaron Craft said. “He’s been doing a really good job of playing great defense, whether it’s one-on-one in the post or getting a stance and having to guard someone on the perimeter. That’s something that he wasn’t doing last year.
“It’s been awesome to see him grow as a player, as a person, on and off the floor, just coming to a better understanding of the game of basketball.’’
Thomas spent time watching Craft, got pressure from coach Thad Matta to improve, and wanted to help the team. He had to shed the high school mentality that he could take any shot he wanted, that he didn’t need to defend.
“I like playing defense now,’’ Thomas said. “It’s a game-changer. Last year, I used to just come in the game, chuck threes. I didn’t care about defense. I take very good pride in it now. It’s just that scoring mentality. Coming out of high school, I had the green light. So now I can do more: put it on the floor, pass, knock down open shots.’’
Mick Cronin knew exactly what the situation was when he accepted Cincinnati’s coaching job in March 2006. Being a native, he knew the city. As an alumnus, he knew the school. And as an assistant for five seasons to Bob Huggins, he knew the program, the administration, and the fan base.
None of which made for an easy transition. Cronin took over seven months after Huggins was forced out, with little talent on the roster and the Bearcats set to join the Big East. “It hasn’t been easy, I’m not going to lie,’’ Cronin said. “If you’re going to get a job, usually it’s in transition for a reason.
“The Cincinnati job was obviously in a bad spot at the time, but if I would have passed on it, what if somebody would have come in and done a good job, rebuilt the program, and I would have never had the chance again?’’
Cronin, who left his alma mater in 2001 to work as Rick Pitino’s assistant at Louisville, returned home after three seasons (and two NCAA Tournament berths) as Murray State’s coach. Hired to bring the program back to the days when Huggins ruled - 14 straight NCAA appearances and a spot in the 1992 Final Four - Cronin pleaded for patience.
Those who have given him the time have to be pleased. This year marks the second straight NCAA berth, and the Bearcats’ win total increased in each of Cronin’s first five seasons: 11-19, 13-19, 18-14, 19-16, and 26-9. Thursday night’s loss left Cincinnati at 26-11.
“We’re not where we want to be, but I don’t plan on going anywhere,’’ Cronin said.
Shooting poorly makes it difficult to win, but Cincinnati has managed to overcome, on occasion, its offensive ineptitude. Of the Bearcats’ 26 wins, five came when they shot worse than 40 percent from the field. That includes a 56-55 victory over Oklahoma on a night the Bearcats made just 17 of 61 shots.
For the season, Cincinnati shot 42 percent, the lowest among the East Regional semifinalists, worse than Ohio State (48 percent), Syracuse (47 percent), and Wisconsin (43 percent).
Ohio State is one of just two schools to advance to the Sweet 16 each of the last three seasons. Kentucky, which eliminated the Buckeyes in last year’s NCAA Tournament, is the other . . . Ohio State either didn’t have much to talk about at halftime with a 12-point lead, or the Buckeyes forgot about the extra-long halftime. They came back onto the floor with more than seven minutes left in intermission . . . Who says these schools can’t get along? At the first scheduled timeout of the first half, cheerleaders from both schools took the floor together and did a little choreographed number, to warm applause.Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin. Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.