The sting of getting ousted from the NCAA tournament hadn’t gone away, not yet.
Moments after Wichita State took advantage of Ohio State’s frigid shooting for a 70-66 victory on Saturday in the West regional championship game in Los Angeles, Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft was still trying to fathom what went wrong after a season in which so much had gone right.
“This team is great,” the junior said. “We did a lot of great things this year. It’s just very unfortunate that it’s got to come to an end now. But hopefully sometime down the road we can look back and appreciate what we did.”
Incredibly, six weeks ago Ohio State’s fans were wondering whether the Buckeyes could finish in the top five in the Big Ten, much less come so close to joining the Final Four in the country.
On Feb. 17, just six weeks ago, the Buckeyes were shellacked at Wisconsin 71-49, a lopsided defeat which dropped them out of the conference race.
Yet they closed with a flourish, winning their final five regular-season games to come within a last-second shot that spun off the rim (by Michigan at home against Big Ten champion Indiana) of tying for the conference title.
After that, the Buckeyes rolled through three games at the Big Ten tournament at United Center in Chicago to capture their third championship in four years.
They coasted through a second-round win over Iona in the NCAA tournament, then won heart-pounding, last-second victories over Iowa State and Arizona in their next two games on 3-pointers by Craft and LaQuinton Ross to get into the West Regional final against Wichita State.
The Shockers, however, built a 20-point lead as the Buckeyes had trouble making any shots. A late rally came up just short.
“I wanted to go back to that Final Four,” said Ross, who watched last year’s run to the national semifinals from the bench. “It hurts a lot, especially when you know we had talent to win the national championship.”
Now the Buckeyes (29-8) will head into a future without their lone senior, backup center Evan Ravenel, and most likely without the leading scorer in the Big Ten, Deshaun Thomas.
Thomas, a junior, almost jumped into the NBA draft a year ago when he was a valuable reserve on the Final Four team that lost to Kansas in New Orleans. Almost everyone believes he’ll give up his senior season this time around.
Ohio State fans frequently prefer the Chicken Little approach — imagining the sky is falling — but even if Thomas leaves the Buckeyes will still have a solid core.
Four starters and two of the most valuable reserves will return. Craft will be joined by Shannon Scott to form a defensive tandem at guard that will create mayhem for most teams.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson, who started all season, will be asked to be bigger contributors on offense along with continuing their strong play at the other end.
Amir Williams, an acclaimed recruit, has only scratched the surface of his potential and will be counted on to make huge strides as he enters his third season as a Buckeye.
And Ross, marked as the team’s X-factor all season as an offensive threat, hopes to build on his superlative play in the postseason as a junior next season.