For much of the season, D'Angelo Russell has made the game of basketball look incredibly easy. His seemingly effortless ability to impact Ohio State with his scoring, passing, and rebounding have put his name among the nation's elite and propelled his draft stock.
As Russell has gone this season, so has Ohio State. With just three regular season games remaining, the Louisville native tops the Buckeyes in scoring, rebounding, and minutes played, and is a close second in assists and steals. With such a heavy load to carry, the season Russell has put together is truly remarkable.
Yet, there are questions as to whether the burden has become too much. Russell has been seen cramping up during several games over the past few weeks, and has been struggling with his shot on offense. Could it be that Ohio State's freshman phenom has hit the wall?
In the four games since becoming only the third player in program history to post a triple-double, Russell has seen a dip in his production. Over that span, in which the Buckeyes are 2-2, he has shot 38 percent from the field (19-50) and 30 percent from three-point range (7-23), and is averaging 13.5 points per game. Russell's true shooting and effective field goal percentages are right around 45 percent.
Those numbers are a little startling when compared to Russell's total body of work. For the season he has averaged 18.7 points a night, shooting 46 percent from the floor and nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc. Russell's true shooting (59 percent) and effective field goal percentage (just under 56 percent) are also significantly higher.
It is not unusual for freshmen to go through struggles and deal with physical issues as the season winds down. In Thursday night's 81-57 Ohio State victory over Nebraska, Russell played just 26 minutes, by far the fewest he has logged since Big Ten play began. Cramping in the thigh after seeming to take a direct hit to it while fighting over a screen against the Huskers, as well as fighting an illness, were enough for head coach Thad Matta to limit Russell's minutes.
"D'Angelo's been very, very sick this week," Matta said after the game. "We had him on some antibiotics, and [the team doctor] thought that may have had something to do with it. I could have put him back in the game, but we had a sizable lead and thought we'd save him and let him get some rest."
While a regular season conference championship is already out of the question for Ohio State, the team has a great deal left to play for. The Buckeyes have historically performed well in the Big Ten tournament, and their postseason destination is still not written in stone. If the scarlet and gray have any hope of making a run in the conference tourney and beyond, they will need Russell at his best.
The southpaw with the sweet jumper will get his first chance to quiet his critics on Sunday at Value City Arena against Purdue. In a game with conference tournament seeding implications and a chance for Ohio State to exact some revenge on the Boilers for last month's loss in West Lafayette, Russell will be the most important player on the court for the home team. The Buckeyes will be hoping he is ready to run right through the freshman wall.