By BOB BAPTIST
LaQuinton Ross is a stone-cold outside shooter who is developing his instincts as a defender.
Sam Thompson is a smart and wildly athletic defender who has “vastly improved” his skills on offense, according to his coach.
Which sophomore wing player will be in the starting lineup for fourth-ranked Ohio State in its season opener on Friday night in the Carrier Classic? Coach Thad Matta said before practice yesterday he has not decided, so it likely will be a game-time announcement against Marquette aboard the USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
“I’ve told the players that this could be a team where we start 20 different starting lineups,” Matta said.
“That’s kind of irrelevant to me. I know the lights and the smoke and the videos and all that stuff is probably more important to them than it is to me. But I want to make sure we put a team out there that has a chance to get off to as good a start as we possibly can.”
Juniors Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Deshaun Thomas started all 39 games last season.
Sophomore Amir Williams is expected to start at center over senior Evan Ravenel because of his defensive presence. Williams, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, had five blocked shots (but also three fouls) in 14 minutes in an exhibition game against Walsh last week.
Ross started the Walsh game, but Thompson started the second half in his place. Thompson was on the floor the last few minutes of the first half, when the Buckeyes used their defense to grab momentum and the lead with a 13-3 run.
Matta used 18 lineup combinations in the game, and Thompson had the third-best plus-minus rating. He also had 11 points, four rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and two steals in 29 minutes.
Ross finished with 13 points and five rebounds and made two of the five three-pointers field goals the Buckeyes made in 19 attempts.
“Q can definitely put the ball in the basket, which is very advantageous,” Matta said, to a team that has only one proven scorer (Thomas) returning.
But Matta said Ross’ defense has improved. “He’s talking more, he’s seeing help [situations], he’s reacting better,” he said.
Ross missed preseason practice last year while making up course credits and didn’t play much played little after missing the first 12 games. He said he thought Matta did not trust him on defense.
“And, honestly, I can’t say I felt bad about it,” Ross said, “because it was kind of true.”
Thompson carved a role for himself during the Big Ten schedule with his defense, but opposing defenses could help off him on the perimeter because he was no threat as a shooter. He missed 13 of 14 three-point attempts.
“I worked with coach [Chris] Jent a lot this summer, fixing the mechanics of my shot [to make it] one fluid motion,” Thompson said. “I’ve been shooting the ball real well over the past few months, I have a lot of confidence in my shot right now, and I’m just going to go out there and prove [the doubters] wrong.”
Matta always has liked bringing players off the bench who can have an immediate impact on games, and Thompson might be able to impact a game in more ways than Ross. He also might be better able to handle not being a starter, Matta said.
“But on the flip side, you also have to look and say, ‘Who gives us the best chance to start the game well?’” he said. “I’ve always said, and I tell our guys, I may not start the five best players, but I’m going to start the five guys that play the best together. And that’s usually the way we finish a game, as well.”