Ohio State's early exit from tournament brings questions

RUSTY MILLER AP Sports Writer Published:

By Rusty Miller | Associated Press

COLUMBUS -- They were just questions asked of a tired coach after a loss.

Yet Thad Matta's responses might reveal a lot about the 2013-14 Ohio State Buckeyes.

Asked why his team couldn't build a lead against Dayton in a 60-59, second-round NCAA loss on Thursday, he said, "I wish I had the answer for you. I would have used it about a month ago."

In the end, as was the case throughout the season, not even Matta knew what to make of his team.

The Buckeyes opened the season 15-0 and climbed to No. 3 in the nation. Yet over their last 20 games, they were 10-10, a season of promise ending in frustration.

When he was asked if he felt good when his team used a 10-0 run to take the lead in the second half, Matta all but threw up his hands.

"You know, you're never comfortable," he said.

So, Buckeyes fans, you're not alone. This team didn't seem comfortable once the calendar changed to 2014 and the opposition got better.

Now it figures to lose two and possibly three key players from a 25-10 season.

Aaron Craft, known for his hard work and defense but also an enigma on offense, is graduating. One of the dependable things about the Buckeyes was Craft would dive for loose balls, make a few steals -- he set the Big Ten record with 337 -- and guard opposing players like a cornerback playing bump-and-run.

Still smarting from the loss to an in-state rival, Craft declined to consider his Ohio State legacy.

"Sorry, I have zero thoughts on that right now," he said. "I'm upset at the way that we played this game and the way that we didn't take the opportunity and make the most of it. So that's for you guys to decide and discuss, but right now, I can't move past this game yet."

The Buckeyes also graduate second-leading scorer Lenzelle Smith Jr. There was nothing certain about his game. He seemed to either score 15 points and play well at both ends or shrink into the background.

He wasn't alone in that regard.

Swingman LaQuinton Ross, a 6-foot-8 junior, was the dependable scorer on the team. He said after the loss he'd take time to decide whether he'll come back for his final year or test the waters in the NBA draft.

Ross blossomed to lead the team with 15.2 points and 5.9 rebounds a game. His defense, dreadful when he first came to campus, improved dramatically.

Should he return, Ohio State could put together a solid team -- with a lot of maybes.

Maybe Amir Williams, a 6-foot-11 former McDonald's All-American who disappears for long stretches, will reappear. Maybe he'll become the force in the middle that the Buckeyes needed so badly this year.

Maybe point guard Shannon Scott, a defensive whiz who showed flashes of an offensive threat, will flourish with Craft gone and without having to share the ball.

Maybe Sam Thompson, who scored 18 against Dayton but also played in fits and starts all season, will find some consistency as a senior. Matta has called him one of the most physically gifted players he's ever coached, but for three seasons he is remembered more for his highlight-reel dunks than making plays.

Maybe sophomore-to-be Marc Loving, backup big man Trey McDonald, guard Amedeo Della Valle and redshirt freshman Kam Williams will make big strides in the offseason.

And maybe incoming freshmen 6-5 D'Angelo Russell, 6-7 Keita Bates-Diop, 6-4 Jae'Sean Tate and 6-10 David Bell will step right in and contribute.

But those are a lot of possibilities with not so many guarantees.

"Obviously, you want it to end differently," Craft said after the Dayton loss. Of next year's Buckeyes he added, "These guys still have time. The best thing that we can do is just move forward."

Before next season, the Buckeyes will have to find more options offensively, develop an inside presence and regain their lost mojo. After making it to the NCAA round of 16 four years in a row, this season's quick knockout has left the entire program grasping for answers.

"This is a game that we had an opportunity to win," Thompson said. "We had a chance to extend our season, extend the seniors' careers and we didn't do it. So it was tough."

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