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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With the official start of the 2012-13 Ohio State basketball season just three weeks away, there's plenty of reasons for Buckeye hoops fans to be excited about the team's upcoming campaign. Forward Deshaun Thomas is back as an All-American candidate, Aaron Craft is expected to be his usual stellar self on defense, and 10 of Thad Matta's top 12 players return from last year's Final Four squad.
But perhaps no player or reason has Ohio State fans more excited than the mystery of LaQuinton Ross.
On the surface, there's no reason why Ross shouldn't be a star at the college level. Having averaged 25.4 points and 11.3 rebounds per game throughout his senior high school season, the 6-foot-8 small forward was once considered to be the top player in the 2011 recruiting class before he committed to play for Ohio State in the summer of 2010.
But while box scores and YouTube videos had Buckeye fans already drooling over the Jackson, Miss. native, Ross' college career hit its first speed bump before he ever arrived on OSU's Columbus campus.
Two weeks before the Buckeyes took the court for their first practice of the 2011-12 season, Ross was ruled to be an academic non-qualifier, and thus ineligible for the start of his freshman season. The ruling forced Ross to return home to Mississippi to retake the SAT and returned his status back to that of a prospect, meaning that the letter of intent that he signed to play for Ohio State was non-binding.
Ross ultimately kept his commitment to Matta to play for the Buckeyes and was eventually ruled eligible to begin his college career at the end of Ohio State's fall academic quarter. But a month's worth of missed practices and games proved to be too much for Ross to make up, and the freshman never found himself in the Buckeyes' rotation throughout their run to the Final Four.
Appearing in a total of 34 minutes over the course of what was left of his freshman season, Ross averaged two points and 0.4 rebounds per game. Having been the star of each team that he's been on for his entire life, the lack of playing time came as a shock to the former four-star prospect.
"Last year was very frustrating," Ross said. "It made you question yourself sometimes, like are you good enough? Or will you ever be able to contribute at this level?"
That's not to say that Ross views his freshman season as a lost one.
"You think you can help the team win, but I learned a lot from it," Ross said. "Being able to play on a Big Ten championship team, I got a ring for that, and I got a Final Four ring, so it was a great experience."
But even though his playing time was sparse, that didn't stop the legend of the freshman forward from growing around the OSU campus.
Rumors of Ross filling up the basket in practice spread across message boards and Twitter, as fans cried for Matta to insert the true freshman into the rotation. Matta never listened, but the thought that Ross could be a major contributor for the Buckeyes only gained steam in the 2012 offseason, when he attended Nike's Kevin Durant Skills Academy camp and was routinely separated from Thomas in scrimmages to even up OSU's competing offenses.
Given what he accomplished in his high school career, Ross isn't surprised that there's so much excitement surrounding his name heading into his sophomore season.
"Basically coming out with my high school reputation, they've probably seen the YouTube videos or whatever," Ross said. "They've heard the talk, so everybody's just excited right now to see what I can do."
Given his lack of playing time last season, the expectations placed on Ross to pick up the absence in scoring left by Jared Sullinger and William Buford can be viewed as unfair- if not absurd by some. But it's nothing new to Ross, who is used to life in the spotlight.
"I wouldn't say it's too much pressure, because I've been dealing with this all my life during high school," Ross said. "The pressure really goes away. I just gotta get out there and perform."
But is the hype around Ross warranted? According to Craft, it might just be.
"I think so," Craft said when asked if he thought Ross could live up to the lofty expectations placed on him. "Coming he was definitely highly touted and just some unfortunate things happened that he couldn't play as much last year. Just watching him grow as a player and a person since he's been here, I think it was good for him to experience sitting out last year and experiencing what that's like. He's come back with a little more fire and a little more edge to him. He's definitely one of those guys that we're trying to get into the offense."
Optimists and cynics alike are going to have to wait until the Buckeyes' season-opener against Marquette on Nov. 9 to see just what Ross can really do, but at Ohio State's media day last week, the 6-foot-8 forward provided an explanation for what he thinks are reasonable expectations for his sophomore campaign.
"Fans should know that they're just going to get a player who that's going to go out there and do what he gotta do to help this team win," Ross said. "I'm not a selfish guy, so I'm not going out there looking to score a thousand points. I'm just going out there, whatever I see fit to do what I gotta do."
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