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Sam Thompson, Ohio State basketball's secret x-factor

He's scoring, he's leading, he's defending. Are we seeing peak Sam Thompson?

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Don't look now, but the basketball Buckeyes are stringing together wins.  The nail-biter vs. Northwestern might not have been a pretty game, but the small-ball line-up against Indiana looked very effective and, at times, fun.

Much of the team's success (and probably all of their wins) are thanks to D'Angelo Russell's monster year.  Marc Loving is doing his share too, but the rock upon which this team is built might actually be Sam Thompson.

When the season started, it was expected that the three core seniors (Shannon Scott, Amir Williams and Thompson) would need to step up to lead this young squad to victory.  No offense, Amir and Shannon, but it's been Sam Thompson that's answered that call this year.  Earlier this month, Thompson called himself a "glue guy," helping this team hold together and pull together.

"But I knew I would have to be a leader ... I knew I would have to be a steadying force and a guy that sort of keeps everything together. I guess glue guy would be the best term to use for that."

It's clear Thompson understands and embraces his role on this team.

On stats alone, Thompson is providing even and steady scoring.  He's averaging just a tick over 10 points a game, up from under 8 last year, and seems to have improved his mid-range jumper.  With Russell driving or drilling threes along with Loving and, occasionally, Kam Williams, Thompson is the perfect gap-filler.  He doesn't drive the lane, he's no good from beyond the arc, but he's a lightning quick cutter who can get open for the catch-and-shoot from 12 feet.  That interior game is exactly the type of variety and reliability this team has needed.  Thompson's ability to get open in a flash and reliably score keeps a defender on his hip at all times, spacing the floor for Russell's drives, Loving's jumpers, or a pick and roll to the post.

On the other side of the court, Thompson's defense has been on point.  Sadly there's no player-specific defensive ratings scheme used in college ball, so its hard to quantify Thompson's defensive play, but you can see that wherever Thompson is on the floor, that's not where the points are coming from.  He's not hiding out on non-threats either; Thompson is a long-armed, athletic freak who can lock down his man with relative ease.

And then there's the intangibles.  Shannon Scott may run the offense, but its Thompson who's out on the court, keeping his teammates in check.  In the most recent loss to Iowa, Thompson was the on-court leader, calling out his teammates for bad passes, stupid fouls, and lazy defense.  Thompson calls the team together for huddles.  His energy and reactions to mistakes keep this team honest and striving for improvement.

Thad Matta is still experimenting with lineups that will work.  Amir Williams rode the bench for much of Ohio State's win over Indiana, which allowed Jae'Sean Tate to come in and do work.  Anthony Lee is starting to have a much bigger impact as a down-low player who can consistently contribute.

In years past, Thompson's starting spot might have been in danger.  Last season, Thompson gave up his starting spot to Shannon Scott and, instead, provided a spark off the bench.

But no one's taking away Thompson's starting spot this year.  He had to step up his game this year, and he's answered the call.  He's the David Lighty/Aaron Craft of this squad.

Thompson has shown he's more than just a flashy dunker. Yes, there's always the danger he'll do this to you:

But he's also stepped into the role of team leader, facilitating, guiding, energizing and pushing this team to victory.  For a team that's still teetering on the edge of mediocrity, that "glue guy" role will be critical down the stretch. One way or another, Sam Thompson is going to have a lot to say about whether this team can reach their potential in time, and make a run at a Big Ten title.