Player Spotlight: Ohio State G Lenzelle Smith Jr.
After starting the season 15-0, the Ohio State Buckeyes were on top of the world.
Once January hit, however, it all came crashing down. Despite the dominating 15-0 start to the season, the Buckeyes lost five of their next six games, with the ultimate insult coming in the form of a 71-70 overtime loss at Value City Arena, to the lowly Penn State Nittany Lions. Ohio State had won the prior 17 meetings between the two schools on the hardwood.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. was not happy.
During an emotional postgame press conference, the senior guard told the assembled media that losing was not what he had in mind for his senior season in Columbus.
“This game hurts the most out of any game since I’ve been at Ohio State,” Smith said, following the Penn State loss in January. “As a team, I don’t think we care enough.”
Throughout his entire basketball career, Smith has experienced a winning tradition. As a sophomore at Zion-Benton Township High School, Smith led his squad to the IHSA Class 4A State Championship. Although his team did not take home the title, the experience of becoming IHSA Class 4A Runner Ups, gave the young Smith a taste of the limelight and how to be successful.
Smith was an Illinois all-state selection after his junior and senior seasons, averaging 20 points and eight rebounds per game during his final high school campaign. As an ESPN Top 100 prospect, he was recruited by Illinois, Wisconsin, and Arizona, before settling on Thad Matta and Ohio State.
Once enrolled at Ohio State, the winning tradition continued for Smith Jr. After beginning his freshman season with a wrist surgery, Smith saw action in a few games for the Buckeyes, who were eventually crowned Big Ten champions, before being upset in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
In Smith’s sophomore campaign, Ohio State reached the Final Four. Last season, the Buckeyes won the Big Ten Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight of the Big Dance.
Losses to Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska were not what Lenzelle Smith Jr. had in mind for his senior season.
“This is embarrassing,” said Smith. “Every other team in our conference is laughing at us right now.”
Thad Matta’s squad is not an offensive powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination. Their leading scorer, LaQuinton Ross, averages only 14.3 ppg. Second on the scoring list is Smith, who averages
11.8 ppg on 44% shooting, and a 36% three-point percentage. While these stats appear unremarkable, Smith contributes to the Buckeyes in ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
In a defense-first Big Ten, the 6-4 shooting guard Smith and fellow senior guard Aaron Craft have excelled, showing that they are capable of containing the most talented backcourts in the conference. Smith is very long for a guard, possessing a 6-9 wingspan that allows him to disrupt passing lanes and rattle opposing offenses. The Zion, Illinois, native realized early in his Buckeyes career that the best way to see the floor under Coach Matta was to play hard on the defensive side of the ball, an area he has excelled in since his freshman year.
On an Ohio State team with only two seniors, Smith has assumed a leadership role during his fourth year with the club. Although he has not scored the ball like many predicted he would prior to the season, Smith’s leadership and locker room presence has been invaluable for the Buckeyes. After the terrible 1-5 record in January, Ohio State searched for answers from their leaders, Smith and Craft.
Since the Penn State game on January 29, Ohio State is 6-1, with wins over Wisconsin and Iowa on the road. Despite six conference losses on the season, a sense of normalcy has returned to Columbus. The Buckeyes are once again in the Top 25, ranked as the #24 team in the country. With four games remaining, Ohio State seems to be a lock for the NCAA tournament, a fate that was undecided four weeks ago.
After Ohio State hit rock bottom against the Nittany Lions, Lenzelle Smith Jr. has flipped the narrative on his senior season. When the Buckeyes travel to the Bryce Jordan Center for a rematch with Penn State on Thursday, you can bet that Smith will be ready for a win.
Uriah Tagle is a junior majoring in communication arts and sciences, and economics. To contact him, email email@example.com.
Photo Courtesy: (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)