The first sign Maryland was in trouble on Wednesday night came only 47 seconds after tip-off.
It was then that enigmatic Ohio State forward LaQuinton Ross caught a kick-out pass from point guard Aaron Craft and buried a wide-open right-wing 3-pointer to give the Buckeyes an early lead.
A basket in the opening minute proved to be a good omen for the once-struggling Ross. The ultra-talented 6-foot-8 junior continued to show signs of emerging from his early slump, erupting for a season-high 20 points to lead fifth-ranked Ohio State to a 76-60 rout of visiting Maryland in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Ross' breakout performance reinforced how good Ohio State can be when he's confident, aggressive and in a good rhythm offensively. An elite perimeter defense, a balanced offense and the leadership of Aaron Craft are enough to keep the Buckeyes in contention in the Big Ten this season, but there will be some games when Ohio State (7-0) needs a go-to scorer to fill the shoes of departed forward Deshaun Thomas.
The obvious choice to fill that role before the season was Ross because of his dynamic play late last season.
Having finally improved his defense enough to crack Ohio State's rotation as a sophomore, Ross played an increasingly large role for the Buckeyes as last season went along despite coming off the bench behind Thomas and Sam Thompson. He averaged nearly 18 points per game in Ohio State's final three NCAA tournament games and sank the game-winning shot to send the Buckeyes past Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Maybe it was the pressure of greater responsibility. Maybe it was that he hasn't always given a consistent effort. Whatever the reason, Ross did not live up to his preseason billing during the first five games of Ohio State's season.
Ross sank just 10 of 44 shots in those five games and went scoreless in Ohio State's 52-35 win over Marquette. It didn't hurt the Buckeyes because the schedule was soft and their defense was stingy, but Ohio State coach Thad Matta still offered vague criticism of Ross and admitted the team needed greater consistency from the junior.
A 17-point, 8-rebound performance against North Florida last week offered hope that Ross was breaking out his slump, but the competition wasn't strong enough to provide a true litmus test. The Maryland game was a better measuring stick, and to say the least Ross measured up just fine.
He sank four threes in the opening six minutes of the game. He matched his season high of 17 points by halftime. And though he only scored three points in the second half, Ohio State didn't need more production from him since Maryland already trailed by 17 at the half and never seriously threatened afterward.
If Ohio State added consistent perimeter offense from Ross to go with Aaron Craft's forays to the rim, Sam Thompson's aerial skills and Amir Williams' improving low-post output, the Buckeyes would have a potent offense to go with their formidable defense. History suggests, however, that Ross is likely to remain streaky.
Fortunately for Ohio State, it can still beat top teams on nights Ross is cold. The Buckeyes will just be that much tougher to beat when he's a factor.