Ohio State's season came to an end with a 60-59 defeat at the hands of Dayton in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo on Thursday. BuckeyeSports.com's Ben Axelrod shares his thoughts on the Buckeyes' final loss, season as a whole and what we can expect from Ohio State moving forward.
"It's amazing the way that, you know, defense has kind of been my thing, and it's amazing how it's going to end with a kid getting the game-winner on me." - Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft.
Indeed it is, Aaron. Although to be fair, that's also a B.S. narrative (although if Craft wants me to run with it, I'll gladly do so). Maybe Craft could have done something differently defensively -- he says he should have slapped at the ball -- on Vee Sanford's game-winner, but I don't know enough about basketball to make that determination. All I know is that Craft scoring seven of his team's final nine points was one of the only reasons that the Buckeyes were in their NCAA Tournament opener -- and finale -- until the end, so if anybody is going to pin Ohio State's loss on Craft, they're probably wrong.
There will be plenty of time to wax poetic about Craft's college career -- or maybe not enough -- but what a remarkable one it was. Dating back to his freshman season on the best Ohio State team I'd ever seen, I've never witnessed a player affect a team and a program so much throughout four full years in college. His shortcomings may have shined this season on the least talented team he ever played with, but if you look at his season stat lines throughout his career, he was remarkably consistent and his impact on each game was never based on just that. Not all fans may appreciate Craft as much as they should right now, but I can promise that there will be a loss (or two) next season that make you say "Ohio State would have won that game with Aaron Craft."
One last thought on Craft -- and maybe none of you care about this stuff -- but he was an absolute class act off the court when dealing with the media. After tough losses -- this one included -- he always answered questions diligently and in a way that I'm sure made the Buckeyes' P.R. department proud. That didn't always lead to excellent answers for stories, especially when trying to ask Craft about himself individually, but I know that I'll miss dealing with him on a professional level. He's been the face of college basketball for the past two seasons, but you'd never know it by talking to him, which shows incredible maturity on his part as 23-year-old.
Now that I'm done waxing poetic about Craft, let's talk about the 2013-14 Ohio State season. It had problems. Multiple ones. Despite being a veteran-laden squad, the Buckeyes lacked maturity and it showed in almost all 10 of their losses and even some wins. Even after all that was written about Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr.'s leadership, their teammates didn't respond to it and you have to wonder about the 2011 recruiting class as a whole. Two lackluster recruiting campaigns also hurt Thad Matta's squad as it received minimal contributions from its freshmen and lone sophomore. The Schottenstein Center isn't on fire -- not by any stretch of the imagination -- but to pretend that this year's team wasn't a flawed one roster-wise would be foolish.
Perhaps the biggest hole on the Ohio State roster this year was its lack of go-to guy and even if LaQuinton Ross has been that for the better part of the last month, he wasn't that against the Flyers on Thursday. Ross scored just 10 points on 5-of-12 shooting, which obviously is something that hurt the Buckeyes in a one-point game. After losing Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas in consecutive years, maybe a season like this was inevitable, but all believed -- and still believe -- that Ross had the talent to be that guy. For stretches he has been, but not nearly as consistently as his predecessors were.
I asked Matta if you can develop a go-to guy or if he thinks one is coming in the 2014 recruiting class. His response: "It's one of those things where everybody wants to be that guy, but guys gotta be willing to do the things in terms of work ethic, in terms of the system and knowing that. I think it can be developed. You see guys have great offseasons and hopefully we'll have that."
As for Ross' NBA future, he says he's going to weigh his options, but he sounded like a man dead set on foregoing his senior season when I talked to him. That may come as a shock to some, but it may be the right decision. If he's never going to be a first round pick -- Thomas wouldn't have ever been one either -- why not spend an extra year making money that he wouldn't have been making otherwise? Maybe he starts in Europe, maybe a team drafts him late and stashes him there. But money is money. I don't know what is or isn't the right decision -- I'm not going to tell a 21-year-old with a young child that -- but I do know that this is a real possibility for Ross. Perhaps even likely.
Looking ahead to next season, the losses of Craft, Smith and possibly Ross will hurt, but I like what the Buckeyes have coming in with their sixth-ranked recruiting class. If Ohio State can land the nation's second-ranked center Myles Turner -- and that's not likely -- its ceiling raises dramatically, but even with five-star prospects Keita Bates-Diop and D'Angelo Russell on their way, the Buckeyes should be in good shape from a talent standpoint.
Also be sure to keep an eye on redshirt freshman to be Kam Williams, who sat out this season after coming down with a case of mono just prior to its start. I've witnessed Williams' major ups in the layup line and Matta has raved about his ability to put the ball in the bucket. Assuming Russell starts, I think that Williams could have a prominent role off the Buckeyes' bench and I don't think it's a coincidence that Ohio State has been recruiting scoring guards in recent years.
Aside from what the Buckeyes are adding, next season will be do or die for the aforementioned 2011 class, which includes Ross, Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, Amir Williams and Trey McDonald. Of those players, I think that only Ross has even come close to touching his potential as the rest have shown glimpses, but not much more than that. I do think that Scott will be a completely different player without a ball-dominating point guard in Craft sharing the backcourt and Thompson is a player who just needs to do certain things at a consistent level. The big men, meanwhile, are what they are at this point in their careers and will have to make drastic improvements this offseason to show us otherwise.
Happy for Dayton, happy for Sibert. But his stare down of Matta after his first three-pointer was a little obnoxious. If he was hitting that shot consistently when he was in Columbus, he'd still be a Buckeye. It's also worth noting that him and Smith didn't shake hands. I wonder why.
Was 25-10 overachieving or underachieving for this team? I think you could argue either. But it's also worth noting that after a 15-0 start the year, the Buckeyes finished the season on a 10-10 stretch. But I firmly believe that when a season like this is viewed as a disappointment to most, your program is in pretty good shape.
As for me, this brings an end to my fourth season on the Ohio State basketball beat, but don't worry, I'm applying for my medical redshirt as we speak. For anybody who's read to this point of my columns either just once or consistently, I thank you for following along. It may not have lasted as long as the past three years, but it's been a fun season nonetheless and I truly appreciate anybody who has used me as a source of information and/or analysis for this team. Happy Spring Football!