If you haven't been paying attention to Ohio State basketball this season, you've been missing one of the great displays of athleticism and skill the college game has seen in quite some time.
When freshman guard D'Angelo Russell walks onto the court for Ohio State, he is a triple-double waiting to happen. His silky smooth left-handed jump shot combined with his court vision and leaping ability make him a triple threat. The way he can race down the floor on a fast break and either stop and pop from three, drive by his defender for an easy lay-up, or find a cutting teammate makes him an opposing coaches' nightmare.
After dropping 20 or more points six times in the month of January, he began February with a bang, recording his first career triple-double (23 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists) on the road against Rutgers on Feb. 8. After Wednesday's annihilation of Penn State in which Russell didn't explode, but still had a nice 17-6-7 stat line, he spoke about his ability to carry the team.
"I'll give a little bit of credit to myself," Russell said. "I feel like I can do whatever it takes to help the team win, whether it’s scoring, passing, or rebounding, and those stats just show up which gives me a lot of attention. But I definitely have to credit my teammates for the stats that don’t show on the screen like deflections and scrapping on the floor."
Russell was quick to give his teammates praise after picking up his scoring slack, but there's no doubting the team's success stems from the attention he's drawn from opposing defenders. Russell is averaging 20 points and 7.8 assists in his last five conference games. His ability to score with ease has opened up his teammates for easy looks at the rim and wide open three-point shots.
Before sophomore forward Marc Loving was unexpectedly suspended by Ohio State, he was shooting an incredible 53.2 percent from beyond the three-point line. Many of his shots were open corner threes off penetration from Russell and Shannon Scott, who combine to average 11.7 assists per game.
With Loving out for three games in an important Big Ten road stretch, freshman wing Keita Bates-Diop has stepped in nicely as a deep shooting threat. As the defense collapsed around Russell in Piscataway, N.J., Bates-Diop planted himself in open spots on the wing and nailed 3-of-4 threes against Rutgers for 14 points. He added seven more off the bench at home against Penn State.
Aside from freeing up shooters, Russell's vision comes into play best when he's running the pick-and-roll. If defenders play off Russell just a little bit he can strike with his quick release jumper. But if defenders help too much and over play on the screen, he has the innate ability to find the rolling big man by splitting defenders with the pass. It's almost reminds you of NBA great Steve Nash with the way he reads defenses and always makes the correct play.
You won't see a more NBA-ready guard in the country than Russell, but top NBA prospects don't necessarily always translate to success in the NCAA tournament. This is why Russell understands he needs his teammates to blossom around him for the Buckeyes to take off in March.
"It makes us much more dangerous. We know what D’Angelo is going to bring on any given night, so it makes us a much dangerous team when we can score around him including myself," said senior forward Sam Thompson. "It’s something we need to keep doing and something I need to keep doing."
Thompson said it was "time for the players to play" after he dropped a career-high 22 points against Penn State. And for Russell, March is where he can cement his legacy at Ohio State in what could be his one and only season in Columbus.
The best part about Russell's demeanor is his whatever-it-takes attitude about winning. If he needs to score 30 for the Buckeyes to advance in the NCAA tournament, he's willing to take the big shots. And when the defense is swarming, he'll find the open man.
At 19-6 (8-4), the Buckeyes stand tied for second place in the Big Ten and ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Ohio State as ninth-seed in the western region in his current version of Bracketology. As we saw last season when Shabazz Napier's sharpshooting led UConn to a national championship from a No. 7 seed, it's not unfathomable that Ohio State could make a run. But Russell will play the leading role no matter where the Buckeyes go, and he knows he can pull out anything from his repertoire on any given day.