When Deshaun Thomas is on his game, Ohio State is usually tough to beat.
Nebraska knows that all too well.
Coming off one of the strongest performances of his career, the star forward looks to lead the No. 11 Buckeyes to a fourth consecutive victory Saturday night as they visit a Nebraska team he outscored by himself in the first half of their meeting exactly one month ago.
Thomas leads the Big Ten in scoring (20.3 points per game) while shooting a career-best 41.3 percent from 3-point range, and his maturation with Jared Sullinger and William Buford gone could give Ohio State (16-4, 6-2) the chance to make a run at its second straight Final Four appearance.
After recording season lows of 11 points and 30.8 percent shooting (4 of 13) in last Saturday’s 65-51 win at Penn State, the 6-foot-7 junior used a combination of strength and finesse to go 10 of 17 from the field for 25 points in a 58-49 win over Wisconsin on Tuesday. Thomas, who matched a career-high with four assists, scored 10 during a game-changing 15-0 second-half run.
Ohio State is 8-1 this season when Thomas shoots 50.0 percent or better, and 9-0 in three seasons when he has at least three assists.
“That’s easily the best player we’ve played because of how he can get his own shots,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Thomas is good. He can attack. He’s so strong.”
Though Thomas pulled down two rebounds, well below his team-best average of 6.3, he kept Wisconsin’s post players out of position and applied pressure when they did have the ball – a facet of his game missing when he arrived in Columbus as a highly touted recruit.
“We talk about his growth,” said coach Thad Matta, who thought Tuesday’s performance might have been Thomas’ best as a Buckeye. “Two years ago he would have just shut down completely on the defensive end and saved it for the offensive end.”
Nebraska (11-11, 2-7) is well aware of Thomas’ potential to dominate. He single-handedly outscored the Cornhuskers 18-17 in the opening 20 minutes in Columbus on Jan. 2, finishing with 22 points in a 70-44 rout.
Coach Tim Miles switched to a zone after Thomas’ early success, but it made little difference.
“They’re so good with their dribble-drive stuff,” Miles said. “Thomas is so good at his all-around game that I don’t think you can give him a steady drive on defense and expect to be successful.”
Though the Buckeyes are still searching for someone to consistently support Thomas on the offensive end, they rank second in the Big Ten in points allowed (57.4 per game) and opponents’ field-goal percentage (37.9). Responsible for the Buckeyes’ two league defeats, Illinois and Michigan State are the only conference opponents to shoot better than 38.8 percent against them.
The Buckeyes held Nebraska to a season-low 30.4 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers last month.
“They were just pressuring everybody,” Nebraska guard Ray Gallegos said after that meeting. “They made it tough for us, inside and out.”
Gallegos had a team-high 14 points but went 4 of 18 from the field as Nebraska dropped its sixth straight in the series. The Cornhuskers have averaged 43.0 points and shot 30.3 percent while losing the three Big Ten meetings with Ohio State by an average of 30.3 points.
Gallegos scored a career-high 30 on 12-of-17 shooting in Tuesday’s 84-65 loss at No. 23 Minnesota. Nebraska shot 54.5 percent but the Gophers shot 54.2 and held a 36-19 rebounding advantage to drop the Cornhuskers to 0-5 this season against ranked opponents.