Last year when the Michigan basketball team went down to Columbus in a mid-season Big Ten showdown, it didn’t come back to Ann Arbor happy.
The Buckeyes bullied the Wolverines around all game, beating them on the boards and getting second-chance points throughout. The 64-49 Ohio State win gave Michigan its fifth consecutive loss in true away games. The storyline for that game was then-freshman point guard Trey Burke returning to his hometown to take on childhood best friend Jared Sullinger.
Since then, things have changed. Michigan went 4-1 on the road after that game and has continued its run this season, remaining undefeated in its first 16 contests. And with Sullinger now playing with the Boston Celtics in the NBA, Burke has taken his place in the National Player of the Year conversation.
But the Wolverines (3-0 Big Ten, 16-0 overall) will have to worry about a different dominant force in the middle. Versatile 6-foot-7 forward Deshaun Thomas, who busted out for the Buckeyes down the stretch last season and earned himself a preseason player of the year nomination. The junior is averaging over 20 points and nearly seven rebounds per game this season for No. 15 Ohio State (2-1, 12-3).
The Daily got a chance to talk with him at Big Ten Media Day in October.
The Michigan Daily: Do you ever think about how you compare to the other top players in the country, like last year did you compare yourself to Thomas Robinson or Anthony Davis?
Deshaun Thomas: Not really. I was just trying to go out there and be the best player I could be. They were great players and if you noticed — I don’t know why people always get on me about my defense — but I held Draymond Green, Robbie Hummel, I held them pretty well. But I never try to be like them or try to fit my role like them.
TMD: Last year, Sullinger took on the role of guarding the opposing team’s best big man. Do you think you’ll have that role this year?
DT: To me, I don’t think I will. It just depends on the system, how coach (Thad Matta) wants us to run it. We have a shot blocker now, Amir Williams. So he can be our starter, and if he gets in foul trouble or (Evan Ravenel) gets in foul trouble, I’ll probably have to hold (the opposing player) for a little bit, frustrate him a little bit. But I don’t think I’ll be that player like Jared that was holding the best player on the team.
TMD: Do you feel more comfortable guarding someone on the perimeter where you can use both your size and quickness?
DT: By me getting my body right and being in shape, I can be that player who can hold some of the perimeters. If you think about it, Cincinnati had all guards out there (in the NCAA Tournament last year) and one big and I did that pretty well.
Note: The Buckeyes beat the Bearcats 81-66 in the Sweet 16. Thomas was effective offensively too, leading all scorers with 24 points.
TMD: What’s the change in your leadership role with Sullinger and William Buford leaving? Is it harder?
DT: I don’t think it’s really that hard. By me coming back last year and freshman year, I learned a lot — you’ve got to learn to be more vocal from the older guys. You’ve got to be more of a leader. I don’t think it’s hard because in practice, coach has pointed me out and I talked to the guys and I have no problem talking to them. And they listen, and we had a great practice.
TMD: How long did it take to get used to that?
DT: Freshman year, I don’t remember saying nothing. I wasn’t even talking. I came a long way. Sophomore year it was getting there, getting better. Then junior year it just got way better. By having experience in being here and learning from David Lighty and Jon (Diebler) and Jared and learning from (Aaron) Craft — but it was natural for him. But being that leader is not so bad and being that more vocal.
TMD: Do you feel more comfortable on the court when you have that type of role?
DT: I feel more comfortable on the court and off the court. Just talking to my teammates, texting them, asking them how they’re doing off the court.