Will Koufos Stay Or Will He Go?

Ohio State head coach Thad Matta frequently talks about wanting to find the best players for his program regardless of whether they will opt for the NBA following one season. With the season just finished, Matta now has to pace and wonder as freshman center Kosta Koufos weighs his options.

NEW YORK – With the way he has seen the court lately, he had to see the questions coming.

Fresh off his team's victory in the championship game of the MasterCard NIT Tournament, Ohio State freshman center Kosta Koufos was besieged by a small contingent of reporters on the court at Madison Square Garden.

The question on their lips – the million-dollar question, if you will – was simple: Will the 7-0 Koufos return for a second season with the Buckeyes?

On a rainy Thursday evening in the Big Apple, Koufos was non-committal.

"I'm not even thinking about it right now," he said. "I'm just enjoying this celebration with my teammates. I'm taking it one day at a time."

What does that mean for the Buckeyes, a young team riding a wave of momentum after putting together a solid stretch of games to close out the season? That remains to be seen.

For large patches of the season, Koufos struggled to adapt to Big Ten play. A skilled forward to likes to get the ball in space and use his skills to draw defensive mismatches was cast as a tough, grinding big man expected to man the paint in a conference noted for its physical play down low.

Needless to say, there were some growing pains. After averaging 18.6 points in his first five games, Koufos came crashing down to earth as the Buckeyes hosted then-No. 1 North Carolina. Facing Tyler Hansbrough and the Tar Heels, Koufos recorded a season-low four points on his worst shooting game of the season – a 1-for-10 performance.

But as the Buckeyes began playing their most consistent basketball of the season, so too did Koufos. After seeing his scoring average drop to as low as 13.3 points per game, Koufos found a consistency in his game mirroring that of his teammates.

In the team's five NIT games, Koufos emerged as the team's leading scorer. He captured the tournament's most outstanding player award, averaging a team-high 18.4 points per contest while also contributing 5.6 rebounds per contest.

Down the stretch of the season, the always polite Koufos began to show a more emotional side that endeared him to Buckeye fans. As OSU put the finishing touches on an overtime victory against Purdue in the final week of the regular season that rekindled its hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, there was Koufos jumping up and down on the court and exhorting the fans to make more noise.

Facing a hostile crowd in the title game that primarily consisted of Massachusetts fans, Koufos waved goodbye to them with both arms as he celebrated the victory at halfcourt with his teammates.

Having shown substantial growth on the court while also exhibiting a joyful persona that reflected his confidence, it seemed that perhaps his desire to give college another go-around might be in order.

But senior forward Othello Hunter said he has no idea what Koufos might do next. Same for freshman Dallas Lauderdale, the player most frequently matched up with Koufos in practice.

After transferring into the program for the 2006-07 season with two remaining years of eligibility, Hunter has often mentioned that he would like the chance to have more time in college. Asked if he would relate that sentiment to Koufos, Hunter shrugged his shoulders.

"I would, but I know his situation," Hunter said. "It's kind of hard for me to say that. He can learn a lot from Coach Matta if he stays here for another year. If he stays, he'll learn a lot and he can leave after his second year, but he'll learn more, I think, if he stays."

Not working in OSU's favor is the fact that Koufos has already turned down a lucrative chance to ply his talents at the professional level. After being named the most valuable player in the European U-18 championships while playing for Greece prior to his freshman season, Koufos received several offers to play in the European professional leagues but decided his heart was set on coming to Columbus to play for head coach Thad Matta.

The Buckeyes lost three freshman from last year's team as Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook all headed to the NBA and were selected in the first round. With his size and skill set, Koufos figures to be a first-round pick should he decide to leave.

Like he did last season, Matta said he has not discussed the future with his potentially early-leaving freshman. Should he return, he would be teamed with incoming 7-0 freshman B.J. Mullens. The two are friends and have spoken about playing together with the Buckeyes.

But then, so too did Koufos and Oden.

Players have until April 27 to declare their intentions, but underclassmen have until June 16 to withdraw provided they do not sign with an agent.

Regardless of what Koufos decides, Lauderdale said he has enjoyed the time spent playing against him this season.

"Whatever he does is up to him," Lauderdale said. "I really hope he stays with us. I don't know what he's going to do and he doesn't know what he's going to do. Of course we're going to keep in contact and we're going to be friends for life. I think he's going to be a great player."


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