If you just looked at the names on the front of the jerseys, it wasn't supposed to be this way. One school had an athletic department with the resources of a Gulf Oil State, the other, a modest state university in Kansas. One school battled in the consensus strongest league in the country, while the other had the unfortunate mascot of a man made of wheat....eating wheat (perhaps the Wichita State Cannibals would be a more imposing nickname than the Shockers). Looking at the seed lines, star power and comparative pedigree, many analysts and fans alike had penciled, maybe even penned, the Buckeyes into the Final Four. Of course, as it happens so often in March, the script was flipped, and the big budget Buckeyes were the ones heading home.
The loss stings, especially for me, since I was watching the game with my father-in-law, an LDS Bishop, so swearing profusely was out of the question. It's a total drag that Ohio State's furious rally came up just one rebound or one three pointer short, but it certainly isn't the worst upset in Ohio State basketball history. Only the most callous fan wouldn't feel at least a little happy for the Shockers. They have an experienced team that plays fundamentally sound basketball, and after their last few seasons, they certainly deserve their moment in the sun.
While getting to the Final Four would have been perhaps Thad Matta's biggest coupe of his career, it would be hard to call this season anything other than a success. Outside of perhaps the media voters who gave Ohio State a lofty preseason top 5 ranking, few seriously expected elite results from the Buckeyes this year, and their early season performance certainly validated that.
Unquestionably, Ohio State was a flawed team, and virtually every one of those flaws was on full display against the Shockers. The Buckeyes had been prone to prolonged scoring droughts, especially if Deshaun Thomas was in foul trouble or otherwise plagued by inefficiency, and they ended up taking most of the first half off from scoring. The Buckeyes lacked a consistent three point shooter for much of the year, and naturally shot 3-17. The wildly inconsistent play (to put it charitably) of Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel sapped the team of an interior defensive presence and opened them up to be damaged on the glass. This was a squad that was once outrebounded by Nebraska, and was completely manhandled by the tough forwards of Wichita State.
When you read it this way, it makes Ohio State sound like first round fodder, not an Elite Eight squad that was a few unlucky bounces from a second consecutive Final Four. How the hell did that happen?
The reason is what should give every Buckeye fan hope for the near future, the growth of the younger players. It's easy to forget how much the team relied on a group of sophomores who hadn't had a ton of game experience before, players like "Flyin" Sam Thompson "dot GIF", Lenzelle Smith Jr., Shannon Scott, Amir Williams and LaQuinton Ross, who was basically a freshman. Every one of those players brought at least a tantalizing skill set to the table, but none of them really had the experience, maturity or basketball IQ to bring those skills into the team on a nightly basis. Scott's shot selection and finishing ability, Thompson's jump shot and consistency, Amir Williams's nearly everything...everybody could only provide flashes of their potential intermittently mixed with frustration.
That left the team to be led by Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and the squad's lone senior, Evan Ravenel, who proved to be a competent "5th" man during his best moments. The improvement of the all around game of Deshaun Thomas hasn't been mentioned as much as his prolific scoring ability, but it cannot be understated how Deshaun's maturity and basketball decision making had grown from his freshman year, where he treated the basketball like some sort of radioactive isotope, one that would cause him great harm if he didn't launch it towards the basket as quickly as possible. The creativity of Thomas in getting to the basket, creating jumpers for himself or finishing at the basket kept Ohio State in multiple games by sheer force of will. This season was not a perfect showcase for his abilities, as he lacked other playmakers to help him get space, and occasionally relapsed into heat check threes and volume scoring, but this season's success would have been impossible without him.
The great news is that that great scoring void may be filled by the sudden emergency of LaQuinton Ross. During the season, especially when the Buckeyes were particularly short on scoring, many clamored for Ross to get more playing time. But Ross would often juxtapose a spectacular drive to the basket or clutch three pointer with dribbling off his foot or getting caught spectacularly out of position. Near the end of the season though, he finally started to put everything together. Ross averaged over 17 points per game over the last three tournament games, and was a critical roll player all throughout the Big Ten tourney.
Deshaun Thomas is likely, although not absolutely certain, to declare for the NBA Draft this year, but Buckeye fans have plenty to be optimistic about. Everybody else, save Ravenel, will be returning, paving the way for an experienced, deep squad anchored by Aaron Craft, with Scott, Thompson and Smith Jr. to add to their superior perimeter defense and athleticism. They will have a full season's worth of Ross, who could be devastating if he can continue to learn to keep his turnovers under control. They get an entire offseason to get Amedeo Della Valle acquainted with things like "weights" to help him become a viable enough rotation player to give him burn to hit threes.
The Buckeyes are also getting two new freshman who should be able to contribute, Baltimore shooting guard Kameron Williams and Ohio D1 player of the year Marc Loving. Neither will be able to carry the team (Loving, in particular, will absolutely need to put on some weight), but both should be able to contribute more than Amedeo did this season. Loving, in particular, will need to play some minutes given the relative lack of big man depth for the Bucks, but it doesn't take much to be a bigger low post scoring threat than Amir.
This squad had a lot of questions coming into the year. They get an entire offseason to work on putting more of those little things together. If Deshaun comes back, it's another preseason top 5 team that will compete for a Final Four spot. If not, this team should still be at least Sweet 16 caliber, and if the freshmen develop quickly or players like Amir and Scott can make another jump, perhaps higher.
This might have been a bit of a frustrating year, but just about everybody would kill for an Elite Eight bid to be what at times seemed primed to constitute a down year. The present may be gloomy, but the future is still bright. Next year, with the improvement and Urban's potential dominance, could truly be a special year to be a Buckeye.