The clock struck midnight Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis for the Ohio State men's basketball team. A possible ticket to the big dance turned into a giant dosey-doe for Minnesota in "The Barn."
Ohio State (17-12) had Cinderella's slipper stolen by the Golden Gophers at "Senior Night" in Williams Arena. Instead, the Buckeyes' carriage turned into a pumpkin, just in time for a trip to the N.I.T. barring an unforeseen turn of events or a Big Ten Tournament Championship run by Ohio State.
For possibly the first time in history, perhaps both the NCAA Champions and defending runners-up could fail to earn a bid into the NCAA Tournament the following season. Florida, young and inexperienced much like Ohio State, has limped down the stretch, going 6-6 in their last 12 games. The Gators have just three top-100 wins in the RPI and none on the road.
But unlike Florida, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta has a dilemma on his hands.
The Gators are primed for a bounce-back season next year, even if they get left out of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Florida is expecting to return 100 percent of the scoring and rebounding from this season for 2008-09. On the other hand, the Buckeyes will need to replace 23.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game from seniors Jamar Butler and Othello Hunter, and face the prospect of losing 7-1 freshman Kosta Koufos, and his 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, early to the NBA draft.
And that's become a disturbing trend for Ohio State.
Columbus is quickly becoming a feeding ground for NBA prospects. More aptly, it's almost like a commuter school, simply a vehicle to get to the next level.
Certainly Matta embraces kids' dreams of making it to the professional ranks. Even further, he's said he will not recruit a kid that doesn't want to go to Ohio State to win, work hard and study hard. But the program can't thrive on one-year wonders.
History has already been made for Ohio State, placing, for the first time in history, three freshmen in the first round of the NBA draft in one season. Losing No. 1-pick Greg Oden, and to a lesser extent, enigmatic Daequan Cook after one collegiate campaigns were not surprising, but Matta was caught off-guard by the sudden departure of eventual No. 4-pick Mike Conley Jr.
And now, it's a real possibility, if not probability, Koufos will become the fourth freshman in two seasons to make that same leap.
The McDonald's All-American turned down a $5 million contract to play in his family's native Greece late this summer, spurning his mother's homeland and the corresponding fortune for a chance to play for the Buckeyes. But despite possibly playing his way out of the NBA lottery, should he declare this season, Koufos may wind up making the jump.
And that's a problem.
Next season, Ohio State will again have unanswered questions. The Buckeyes will be relying on two freshmen point guards, one coming off a second major knee surgery, to man the lead role. And the dreams of seeing 7-footers Koufos, and incoming McDonald's All-American B.J. Mullens playing alongside one another would be crushed if Koufos elects to depart, again leaving Ohio State in a bind, lacking a true power forward.
The news gets worse.
If Mullens plays anything like expectations for the No. 6-overall player in the nation by ScoutHoops.com, don't expect Mullens to stay longer than one season. And 6-7 high school sophomore Deshaun Thomas, arguably the top prep star in his class from Ft. Wayne, Ind. – don't count on him staying in Columbus more than a year or two, if he ever arrives.
If not for last year's trip to the Final Four, one could almost sympathize with the recruiting philosophies of terminated coach Jim O'Brien.
The grumpy ex-Ohio State basketball coach, much like Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, fretted to recruit players that would quickly bolt for the NBA, creating a revolving door in his program. It's the kind of continuity problem that's plagued Michigan State and other top programs.
Perhaps O'Brien's biggest problem wasn't the mentality, but how it was portrayed.
(Paraphrasing)"If you want Final Four appearances every year, go to North Carolina," O'Brien once quipped.
In reality, college basketball championships are won with talent. So while O'Brien's teams may have contended for Big Ten Titles fairly regularly, they weren't equipped for long, successful runs in March.
By contrast, Matta has quickly loaded his cupboard for the near future. But recruiting success comes with a price, as Ohio State fans are quickly learning.
And now, they're getting what they wished for.
The instability and lack of depth from the sudden departures left the Buckeyes vulnerable this season and will continue to do so if this trend continues. No program can survive with a steady stream of one-year players unless almost every one of them live up to the billing almost every second they suit up.
So far, Conley and Oden lived up to the hype, but Cook and Koufos would go down as solid players, especially given they were only freshmen, but only showed flashes and never consistency.
Another drawback of Matta's tremendous recruiting is that these early departures backfire against the NCAA Academic Progress Report. The report, APR for short, counts each scholarship athlete enrolled for each semester (or quarter). Two points are given, one for staying eligible and another for returning to school the next term, for each player.
Adding up the total number of points possible and dividing by the actual number of points, the percentage is multiplied by 100, giving the school their APR score. Schools must maintain an 825 to avoid possible punishments from the NCAA, which could include a loss in up to three scholarships.
It's not as if recruiting successful players will automatically translate into one-and-done. North Carolina lost Brandon Wright after just one season, but sophomores Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington, as well as junior Tyler Hansbrough all returned to Chapel Hill to make a run at a National Championship. At Kansas, Brandon Rush, thought to be a one-and-done, is in his third-year while Darrell Arthur also spurned the NBA for a second season in Lawrence.
Ironically, if Koufos says goodbye to Ohio State at season's end, he will be the third such player to do so against favorable circumstances. Three such kids were good students that love class. And for that matter, three families were not in distress financially. But still, you can understand kids leaving if they're being guaranteed a top-10 pick, as Conley and Oden were.
Koufos, on the other hand, might not be so fortunate.
Should he leave, Koufos may not even be guaranteed a top-20 or top-25 position. He could make himself, potentially, millions more by returning for one more season, improving many flaws exposed in his game this year and in the process, possibly helping Ohio State compete for a Big Ten Championship (or more).
In the slim chance Ohio State returns, for a third consecutive season, to the NCAA Tournament, maybe they can make the most of the remaining games they have left with Koufos. Or, maybe Koufos returns for another season. And in a perfect world, maybe the Buckeyes will find the slipper fits and the 7-footer plays his sophomore year in Columbus.
Regardless, this issue won't go away. Matta will have to find a delicate balance between his tireless work on the recruiting trail and keeping together a core of players long enough to matter.
Otherwise, the dancing may be short-lived.