Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
When Ohio State fell to Wichita State last Saturday, so too, did LaQuinton Ross’ dream of making it to the Final Four.
The sophomore forward was part of the Buckeyes’ team that made it to college basketball’s biggest stage last season, but the 6-foot-8 sharpshooter logged zero minutes in OSU’s 64-62 loss to Kansas in New Orleans.
So that didn’t really count, as far as Ross is concerned.
This season, it would have been different.
Ross was a key factor in OSU’s NCAA Tournament wins against Iowa State and Arizona and likely would have played major minutes in Atlanta.
It was a possibility he was looking forward to greatly.
“I definitely think it’d be great, especially me not playing a lot (against Kansas in New Orleans), me playing not at all last year. This year, (being) able to help the team out, help the team get this far, it’d be great,” Ross said the day after he hit a game-winning 3-pointer in the Sweet 16 against Arizona.
Ross’ longing to see the court in a Final Four game this season ended the following day, however, when OSU fell to No. 9 seed Wichita State, 70-66, in an Elite Eight game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles March 30.
In the season-ending defeat to the Shockers, though, the Buckeyes yet again learned the type of player Ross can be and how far the 20-year-old from Jackson, Miss., has come since his troubled freshman season.
Ross had 19 points against Wichita State, capping an NCAA Tournament in which the sophomore averaged 15 points. Ross tallied 8.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in his second season in Columbus but was at times the go-to player for the Buckeyes in each of their four tournament contests.
“I’m very, very excited about the progress he made, and he’s become engaged with all the little things, and that to me is what has made him play at the level he’s been playing at,” said OSU coach Thad Matta.
It was just a year ago that Ross would often sit sulking on the bench, seeing minimal playing time after ineffective and unengaged practices.
“I wasn’t playing, so I was thinking, ‘Why do I need to do this?’ or ‘Why do I need to do that?'” Ross said.
His start at OSU was even rockier.
The NCAA ruled Ross as an academic non-qualifier in late September 2011. After training with his teammates in the summer, Ross was forced to return to his hometown to take a class and re-take the SAT.
“I was here for summer school and did well, I had like a 3.5 (GPA) or something in summer school,” Ross said. “When the school year started, they told me I had to go back home, and that was definitely tough for me.”
During those fall months in Jackson, other schools pursued Ross, including Baylor and Georgetown. But Ross remained loyal to OSU and was ruled eligible by the NCAA in early December 2011.
“When I went home, I was recruited all over again. I could have chose any school, but I knew I made a promise to OSU that I would come back because I enjoyed my time there,” Ross said.
It took some time for Ross to relish OSU again once he came back to Columbus. The then-freshman averaged just two points and 3.9 minutes of action a game in 2012. Many thought the once highly recruited player – Ross was the No. 1 player in his class as a sophomore in high school – would transfer.
“The easy route is transferring, it’s easy to just go somewhere else. Or, you can step up your game, work hard. It’s worked out for me this year,” Ross said.
Ross was a secondary scoring option to the Buckeyes’ leading scorer, junior forward Deshaun Thomas, for most of the 2012-13 season. Thomas could be heading to the NBA, however, meaning Ross could be the focal point of an OSU team next season that returns everyone except forward Evan Ravenel and potentially Thomas.
“I think we can have a heck of a basketball team next year,” Matta said. “We’re finally going to have more than one senior, which we haven’t had for a couple years.”
Guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. will be the squad’s two seniors, with juniors Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson also likely to have big roles.
But Ross should be the team’s go-to guy in a Thomas-like role, as he displayed during the final three games of OSU’s tournament run in which he scored 17, 17 and 19 points.
If all goes well for the Buckeyes next season, Ross could finally get his wish to see the floor in a Final Four game.
“He’s been through the hardships, with what he had to go through last year,” Craft said. “Everyone kind of wants the best for him. He’s jumped on board and really bought into the system.”