By Rusty Miller | Associated Press
COLUMBUS -- The sting of getting ousted from the NCAA Tournament hadn't gone away, not yet.
Moments after Wichita State took advantage of Ohio State's frigid shooting for a 70-66 victory on Saturday in the West regional championship game in Los Angeles, Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft was still trying to fathom what went wrong after a season in which so much had gone right.
"This team is great," the junior said. "We did a lot of great things this year. It's just very unfortunate that it's got to come to an end now. But hopefully sometime down the road we can look back and appreciate what we did."
Incredibly, six weeks ago Ohio State's fans were wondering whether the Buckeyes could finish in the top five in the Big Ten, much less come so close to joining the Final Four in the country.
On Feb. 17, just six weeks ago, the Buckeyes were shellacked at Wisconsin 71-49, a lopsided defeat which dropped them out of the conference race.
Yet they closed with a flourish, winning their final five regular-season games to come within a last-second shot that spun off the rim (by Michigan at home against Big Ten champion Indiana) of tying for the conference title.
After that, the Buckeyes rolled through three games at the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago to capture their third championship in four years.
They coasted through a second-round win over Iona in the NCAA Tournament, then won heart-pounding, last-second victories over Iowa State and Arizona in their next two games on 3-pointers by Craft and LaQuinton Ross to get into the West Regional final against Wichita State.
The Shockers, however, built a 20-point lead as the Buckeyes had trouble making any shots. A late rally came up just short.
"I wanted to go back to that Final Four," said Ross, who watched last year's run to the national semifinals from the bench. "It hurts a lot, especially when you know we had talent to win the national championship. It's a sad feeling to be going home right now."
Now the Buckeyes (29-8) will head into a future without their lone senior, backup center Evan Ravenel, and most likely without the leading scorer in the Big Ten, Deshaun Thomas.
Thomas, a junior, almost jumped into the NBA Draft a year ago when he was a valuable reserve on the Final Four team that lost to Kansas in New Orleans. Almost everyone believes he'll give up his senior season this time around, although after the Wichita State loss he said he'd take a while to make up his mind.
"I'm just going to go home, enjoy my family, get back in the gym, and have to think about this," he said. "This is a great group of guys I have around me and great coaching staff. So I'm going to enjoy my time off and not going to remember this loss and get back in the gym and get better."
Ohio State fans frequently prefer the Chicken Little approach -- imagining the sky is falling -- but even if Thomas leaves the Buckeyes will still have a solid core.
Four starters and two of the most valuable reserves will return. Craft will be joined by Shannon Scott to form a defensive tandem at guard that will create mayhem for most teams.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson, who started all season, will be asked to be bigger contributors on offense along with continuing their strong play at the other end.
Amir Williams, an acclaimed recruit, has only scratched the surface of his potential and will be counted on to make huge strides as he enters his third season as a Buckeye.
And Ross, marked as the team's X-factor all season as an offensive threat, hopes to build on his superlative play in the postseason as a junior next season.
If Ohio State fans were disappointed, so was coach Thad Matta, who watched his team shoot just 24 percent in the first half while falling behind, still chose to cling to the positives.
"I'm proud of the way our guys came back, dug down," he said. "Everybody remembers the last game. I'm not going to. I'm going to remember this season, because I'm very, very proud of what these guys have accomplished this year."
Junior-to-be Trey McDonald will vie with Williams for playing time in the post. Amedeo Della Valle, the Italian import with the curly locks and the eagle eye behind the arc, should add some oomph off the bench.
On top of that, the Buckeyes brought in a two-man recruiting class which includes Ohio Associated Press Mr. Basketball Marc Loving, a 6-foot-8 swingman, along with 6-2 shooting guard Kam Williams.
"I've lost my three tournament games now by eight points combined," Craft said after the Elite Eight defeat. "It's tough. It's crazy tough."
Whether the Buckeyes who remain learn from the difficult loss may determine how they come back next season.