NCAA BK

Buckeyes come up just short at Final Four

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NEW ORLEANS (AP)

Shortly after Ohio State's season ended with a loss to Kansas at the Final Four late Saturday night, point guard Aaron Craft was asked if he will be coming back next season.

''Pfft! Of course. I love Ohio State,'' he said with a grin.

OK, so the Buckeyes are set at the point.

Forward? They might not know that for a week or two.

Ohio State shook off a late-season funk to make an unexpected run to the Final Four. The Buckeyes are young - William Buford is the only outgoing senior - giving them a solid core for next season.

The question is whether that core will stay together.

Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, the team's leading scorers, have until April 10 - at least by NCAA guidelines - to decide if they want to declare for the NBA draft.

Thomas was a breakout star in the NCAA tournament, leading the Buckeyes in scoring. A multidimensional 6-foot-7 forward, he might consider leaving if he's projected to be selected in the first round.

Sullinger was projected as a lottery pick last year before deciding to return for his sophomore season. His draft stock might have dipped a little, but he'd still likely be a high first-round pick if he comes out.

''I honestly don't know yet,'' said Sullinger, who pulled up his jersey to cover his face after the loss to Kansas.

If the Final Four loss was the end, it was a tough way to go out.

Playing for a spot in its second title game in five years, Ohio State (31-8) pushed Kansas around early but didn't have an answer when the Jayhawks pushed back in the second half.

Sullinger, a two-time All-American, had a tough night against Kansas center Jeff Withey and a slew of double teams in the second half, hitting 5 of 19 shots while scoring 13 points. Thomas had a rough go of it, too, scoring nine points on 3-of-14 shooting and getting into foul trouble, which allowed Kansas to send those double teams at Sullinger.

Buford had a good night after a monthlong funk, scoring 19 points while hitting 6 of 10 shots, but the three reserve players who got into the game combined for zero points and didn't take a shot.

Instead of playing in Monday's national championship game against Kentucky, the Buckeyes were headed back to Columbus after a 64-62 loss.

''I mean we can't blame it on anything,'' Buford said. ''We had a great season. We had a lot of doubters this season. Nobody expected us to get this far. Real proud of the guys for helping me get to the Final Four my last year.''

Ohio State came into the season with plenty of questions.

The Buckeyes were knocked out in the regional semifinals of the 2011 NCAA tournament as the top overall seed and lost three key players: Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and David Lighty. Ohio State was young, with 11 underclassmen, and outside of a few key spots, coach Thad Matta wasn't sure what he had.

The Buckeyes were a talented bunch, though, led by Sullinger, who shed 15 pounds in the offseason and was considered the nation's top returning big man.

Ohio State got the season off to a solid start, its only losses of the first three months on the road against Kansas - without Sullinger - Indiana and Illinois. But as the season started winding down, the Buckeyes became disjointed and selfish, playing and practicing with a complacency that infuriated Matta.

After watching his team lose two of three in late February and go through the motions at practice, Matta blew his stack and tried to throw them all out of the gym. Buford wouldn't let them leave and even though they lost to Wisconsin the next day, the Buckeyes rallied after Matta's my-way-or-the-highway moment.

Ohio State went a roll, starting with a win over Michigan State in the regular-season finale, winning eight of nine games, including a victory over top-seeded Syracuse in the regional final to earn a trip to the Big Easy. It didn't end quite like they wanted, but it was quite a run.

''It hurts, but at the same time, if you look at this team a month ago, people like you all said we wasn't good enough to get here,'' Sullinger said. ''So I'm proud of these guys and everything they overcame.''

Tagged: Ohio State, Ohio, Kansas, William Buford, Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas

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