published Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

'Big Game L' adds flexibility for Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Ohio States' Lenzelle Smith plays against Michigan during an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

His Ohio State teammates call sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. "Big Game L."

Given the 28 points he scored a couple of weeks ago against Indiana and the 17 points and 12 rebounds he contributed in Sunday's 15-point victory over Michigan, the nickname fits.

But OSU coach Thad Matta sees the Zion, Ill., resident's ultimate role on the No. 3 Buckeyes as even more wide-ranging.

"With this team we sort of need a jack of all trades," Matta said after Sunday's win improved Ohio State's record to 19-3 overall and a league-best 7-2 in the Big Ten.

"There's so many times where a team is going to choose to guard us a certain way or scheme a certain defense. I think Lenzelle really understands that role."

As a more mature Ohio State bunch roared to a No. 1 seed a year ago, Smith's role was mostly that of cheerleader. Rated among no one's Top 100 prep players in the 2010 recruiting class and deemed no better than the fifth best of a sterling six-man Buckeyes rookie class that included fellow current starters Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, Smith struggled.

Even this season, as OSU somewhat retooled after the graduation of longtime starters David Lighty and Jon Diebler, Smith hasn't always wowed the Buckeyes crowd with his statistics.

He's averaging only 8.6 points in Big Ten play despite his breakout scoring performances against the Hoosiers (when he hit 10 of 12 shots) and Wolverines. He's also averaging a mere 4.7 rebounds, despite his 12 against the Maize and Blue.

But the 6-foot-4 leaper's defense was also a key reason the Buckeyes limited Michigan to 49 points, its lowest total of the year.

"Just the energy type plays he made today were something that definitely gave us a spurt and gave us some energy," Matta said then.

Added Smith as he perfectly verbalized that jack-of-all-trades mentality: "I knew that was going to be our edge, rebounding and just doing the little things."

It's not only Smith who has the Buckeyes earning their seven Big Ten wins by an average of 26 points (their two league losses are by nine total points) or their victory margin in all games (including losses) a whopping 21.7 points.

It all starts with the burly, bruising 6-9 Sullinger, who leads the team in both points (17.1) and rebounds (9.1). Then there's senior wing William Buford, who's scoring 15 a game and hitting 88 percent of his free throws. Add Craft's near-flawless point guard play (8.1 ppg, 4.9 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 steals) and Thomas's 14.6 points and 4.4 rebounds a game and you have the makings of a team that certainly could win the national title.

Speaking of Craft following Duke's 85-63 loss at Ohio State earlier in the season, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "Part of being a good point guard is having people you can point guard for. He has the best player in the country [Sullinger] and Buford. He is really good, but they are really good, too. He is a terrific player on a team that's very talented. They can score from a number of different positions. Their defense is outstanding."

Michigan coach John Beilein went even further in lauding the Buckeyes D: "Their defense is suffocating at times. Their length is important. What might work as a legal box-out with some teams won't work for this team."

A second angle from which to view that 26-point victory margin in the Buckeyes' seven Big Ten wins: No. 1 Kentucky has won its seven Southeastern Conference games to date by an average of 14.1 points. In the latest conference RPI ratings the Big Ten is No. 1, the SEC fourth.

All of which brings us somewhat back to the largely unsung contributions of Big Game L.

After watching his Miami University team fall by 29 to OSU in late December, RedHawks coach Charlie Coles said of the Buckeyes, "This team beats you because Craft takes his time, doesn't gamble and runs the offense. Then you have the big guy Sullinger, Buford and the wild card Thomas. Plus, there's Smith, who just plays hard all the time."

And when his points can match his energy, as he did with those 28 against Indiana, well ...

"If they get that," IU coach Tom Crean noted, "they can win a national championship."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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