Buckeyes come up just short at Final Four

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.”