In rather heartbreaking fashion, Ohio State's season without reason has finally ended.
Considering their play today -- which we'll get into during the body of this recap -- it's remarkable they were even in position to get a buzzer beater to win. Sam Thompson led the Buckeyes with 18 points, but this game will ultimately be remembered as the final game that Craft played in an Ohio State uniform. As was typical throughout his entire career, you had to take the great with the heart-breaking. The good was that he scored 16 points on only nine field goal attempts, and added five rebounds and four assists for good measure. The bad involved his five turnovers, a flagrant foul in an important situation on Jordan Sibert, and being beaten off the dribble for the final bucket by Dayton. When Craft and LaQuinton Ross combine for ten turnovers, it was always going to be difficult for the Buckeyes to win games.
As usual, Dayton got a well-rounded performance from their offense with five players scoring between nine and 12 points. Devin Oliver led the way with 12, and Sanford added 10. Sibert (did you hear he used to go to Ohio State? I just wanted to make sure everyone heard that in case you didn't hear that) added nine for good measure, and Dayton will move on to face the winner of Syracuse-Western Michigan.
The Buckeyes came out attacking on offense. On the first possession they got the ball to Ross on the wing who attacked and scored from the midrange, then found Thompson wide open on the wing for three on the second possession for a 5-0 lead. But then, as usual, the clogged toilet on offense took over. Sibert knocked down his first attempted three. Then Oliver knocked a three pointer to make it 10-7. Matt Kavanaugh attacked and got an and-one. After starting 0-3 from the field, Dayton went 5-5 and took a four point lead.
After that, the game settled in and got into its pace. At one point, Dayton stretched the lead to six after another Kavanaugh layup, but then Ohio State went on a quick 7-0 run behind five Craft points to take a one point lead. Sibert picked up two fouls and about seven minutes worth of obnoxious narrative during the first half, and was forced to sit on the bench for a large portion of it. Mostly it was ugly basketball with quick explosions of points. Craft was his typically in-control-yet-entirely-out-of-control self on offense with nine points on three shots but four turnovers in the first half.
The problems for the Buckeyes arose more with their transition defense, as they allowed Dayton to beat them down the floor and get easy buckets in transition en route to the Flyers having a 55.8 eFG% in the first half. Amir Williams (in one of his worst games of the season, by far) allowed Kavanaugh to continually run him off the floor and the wings allowed Dyshawn Pierre and Oliver to get out in transition. Dayton generally looked the more athletic and fresher team in the first half, which led to them having a 33-30 lead.
Then the Buckeyes somehow came out even flatter in the second half. They had zero energy. Dayton kept running and beating the Buckeyes in transition. The Ohio State offense continued to turn the ball over. I'd call the low point a pass to the referee by Craft:
(Via Timothy Burke, Deadspin)
But then, at 43-35 Dayton, Thompson took over. He scored a quick bucket after a Dayton miss. Then, after a flurry of awful transition possessions by both teams, Thompson threw this dunk down.
Then the next time down, the Buckeyes ran a back ball screen for a rim run by Thompson leading to this.
After a quick bucket by Ross and a tip in by Thompson, the Buckeyes took a two point lead. The teams continued to trade the lead back and forth, until Craft committed what was easily the dumbest foul of his career. With Sibert running out in transition, Craft attempted and missed an arm tackle that only Anderson Russell would have been proud of. Needless to say, Craft was called for a flagrant foul. Sibert knocked down both free throws, and then Ohio State got a stop.
But after that utter stupidity, Craft came down and gave us a Rick Reilly narrative for the ages with heart, toughness, and the ability to throw it as hard as he could off the backboard. The ball happened to also go in the hoop, and Craft knocked down the free throw for an and-one to tie the game at 55 with two minutes remaining.
After Oliver missed two free throws on a cheap foul by Lenzelle Smith on the perimeter, Craft then came down and dribbled into about four players and made a pass to Thompson, who made a little floater to take the lead 57-55. Then disaster struck defensively.
After an excellent defensive possession, the Buckeyes bailed out Dayton by fouling on a three pointer. This was the possession that killed the Buckeyes. Not the game winner. Not the Craft attempt at a buzzer beater. This one. The Buckeyes hadn't so much as let the ball get inside the three point line, let alone the paint, on this possession. And then Shannon Scott, who is about four inches shorter than Dyshawn Pierre, fouled him and gave him three free throws to take the lead. Pierre sunk all three, and put Ohio State behind the eight ball for the waning seconds. It was a remarkably stupid play from one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. It was so stupid that my brain can't even enumerate the reasons why it was stupid.
Craft came down and made a miraculous layup for the lead, but it wasn't enough. Sanford made his shot, Craft missed his final attempt in a Buckeye jersey, and it was all over.
This is largely a season that will be seen as a disappointment for the Buckeyes, partly due to lofty expectations because of an over-their-head start to their season, and partially because of what Ohio State has done recently. It was just three months ago that Ohio State spent a month as the third ranked team in the country after winning their first 15 games of the season. They went 10-10 in their final 20 games though because of a stagnant offense, a lack of playmakers, and somewhat unlucky shooting. A 25-10 season isn't bad for most schools, but because of what Ohio State has accomplished recently -- this is the first season since 2009 that they won't be in at least the Sweet 16 -- this team will be remembered as one that collapsed down the stretch.
And if you think about it, it's a surprise that they're even in that position. Because of early draft declarations and transfers, what this Ohio State team is left with is a lot of players they recruited to be depth pieces. Craft and Smith were the third and fourth best players of their class. So were Ross and Thompson. Scott has been a good player that has somewhat underperformed his McDonald's All-America status, and Williams hasn't developed at all offensively. Amedeo Della Valle and Trey McDonald were afterthoughts. It's a tough position to be in. Thad Matta did an excellent job with this group even getting them into a position where they were favored to reach the Round of 32.
Next season is next season, and I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion about that in the upcoming weeks. Ross has a decision to make about the NBA -- I'll write something in the coming days about this, but my immediate, overriding thought is that he needs to stay because of both the depth of this draft class and his own current deficiencies -- plus Craft and Smith are gone as seniors. The Buckeyes have a great recruiting class coming in, and should be able to reload more than rebuild for next season despite their potential losses.
But for now, Ohio State's season is over, Aaron Craft's career is over, and the Buckeyes will be watching from home for the rest of the tournament.