The second-seeded Buckeyes, though, fell short of accomplishing the unthinkable – winning a national title – when it fell to Kansas 64-62 Saturday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
Things feel rather empty now for the Buckeyes, though there's a lot to be proud of. The team will look drastically different in the next month and Thad Matta will have to move his program into the next era in the immediate future.
But a lot was accomplished in a season that otherwise looked lost six weeks ago. We take a look back at the Kansas game – plus add in some additional thoughts – in the last version of View From Press Row of the 2011-12 basketball season:
Jared Sullinger struggles with lengthy Jeff Withey – If it was Sullinger's final game as an Ohio State basketball player, it probably wasn't the way he envisioned it. It most certainly wasn't anything that will make NBA scouts drool, specifically because he finished 5-of-19 from the floor for 13 points while noticeably struggling at times with Kansas' 7-foot big man. Ohio State had relied on him all year to make plays down the stretch of big games, but against the Jayhawks he couldn't come through. Perhaps it was the size of the man defending him, which could expose his ability to translate well into professional basketball initially. Or maybe it was a night when things weren't going very well. Either way, the NBA is likely the next step in Sullinger's career. But it was the stage he led the team to – the Final Four – that will mark his collegiate legacy.
William Buford could have been the hero – Nobody has taken more abuse than Buford this season. Sometimes it was warranted, other times it wasn't. But in the Final Four, the senior played like a senior. He finished 6-of-10 from the floor with a team-high 19 points and seven rebounds, tying him for third all-time on Ohio State's scoring leaders list. Ironically enough, Buford didn't get the final shot I thought he was going to have – and make – in the final moments of this game.
His career is a rap at Ohio State and I think there is a lot to consider when looking back at his legacy. We all remember the game he had against Kentucky last year, but when you look at the things he brought to this program, it's safe to call him one of the best players to ever play for Matta. Maybe it was because of him, or maybe it wasn't, but as a senior he finished things out in the Final Four. And on the biggest stage he's ever played on, Buford provided what everyone had come to expect out of him.
Thomas' foul trouble really hurt – Ohio State was a different team this year because Thomas' emerged as one of the best players in college basketball during the NCAA Tournament. Against the Jayhawks, Thomas made only 3-of-14 shots and was limited to 23 minutes while in foul trouble. With him on the bench, Ohio State was a different team. Not only did it take a scorer off the floor, it allowed Kansas to start double-teaming Sullinger inside.
Still, Thomas has become a very intriguing NBA prospect, especially for his ability to score in bunches and grab tough offensive rebounds. But this game exposed some of the things we knew about the old Thomas. Too many times in this game it looked like he was worried about getting his own points when his shot wasn't falling. At the end of the contest, he took some ill-advised three points with his team down three when there were better shots to be had. Perhaps Thomas will go to the NBA – but I think this game showed that he still has a lot of growth to enjoy before he's completely ready.
Big momentum swing right before halftime – Ohio State led be 11 points with about six seconds remaining in the first half. Point guard Aaron Craft tried to drive to the hoop for an easy bucket, but was blocked by Kansas' Thomas Robinson. Matta thought it was a foul. Robinson got the ball out to Tyshawn Taylor, who then passed it to Travis Releford for an easy layup right before the clock expired. That basket cut OSU's lead to nine at halftime, and I genuinely think that was a turning point in this game.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. has a bright future – So many times this year we wrote off Smith as a scoring threat, and I include myself in that. But I think a lot of that had to do with the people around him, too. I can't say enough about how clutch he was during the NCAA Tournament and I think he's a better scorer than we give him credit for. Now that OSU is losing some key offensive elements, I kind of expect him to really take his game to the next level. He was the ultimate team player this year, but now that the Buckeyes are going to be a completely different team next season, I expect him to flourish.
This isn't an elite program – Matta has done a tremendous job in his eight years taking Ohio State from a mediocre basketball program to one of the better ones in college basketball. Two Final Fours in his short time in Columbus is a testament to the fact that Matta is one of the best coaches in college basketball. However, the thingst that separate elite programs from good ones are national championships and Ohio State is going to have to get over that hump before it can be mentioned in the same sentence as North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky.
The season was a success – Check the rafters soon – Ohio State is getting a banner. Though emptiness of not accomplishing the ultimate goal still stings, but the Buckeyes overcame quite a bit before landing one of the four sports in college basketball's biggest stage. Maybe the Buckeyes weren't the best team in college basketball, but the season was a tremendous success.