COLUMBUS - Ohio State coach Thad Matta never made the case that winning the NIT was a substitute for going deep in the NCAA tournament. But it sure beats bowing out with a loss.
"Absolutely," Matta said by phone while the team bus negotiated through Manhattan traffic after the Buckeyes beat Massachusetts 92-85 in the championship Thursday night. "The biggest thing is that this team got better in the last three weeks in the NIT. And No. 2, players got better. I couldn't be happier with that as we look to the future."
Ohio State capped a 24-13 season by rolling through five games in the NIT.
It was a year of transition after last year's 35-4 run to the national championship game ended with three freshmen leaving early for the NBA draft and with two starters graduating.
Senior point guard Jamar Butler had a big year, but it took a long time for the rest of the Buckeyes - who started two freshmen and a sophomore - to come around and clinch a measure of accomplishment.
"That's the thing you forget at times with everything we lost," Matta said. "I think Jamar was our fifth-leading scorer coming back from last year. It just took us time to get in the flow and get a great understanding of what we needed to do. I think the guys did a very good job of it."
But now Butler - Ohio State's career leader in assists, 3-pointers made, and free-throw percentage - is graduating, along with forward Othello Hunter and sixth-man Matt Terwilliger. Another promising class of recruits is coming in. Sure, there's the excitement of having won the NIT, but it's blended with the disappointment of having missed the NCAA tournament. And that will serve as an incentive.
"We're going to keep using that as motivation all year, for sure until the next NCAA tournament, the next Selection Sunday," said backup center Dallas Lauderdale, who saw increased action while contributing more as the NIT progressed. "Whenever we're in the weight room in the offseason, I'm going to say, 'We were this close last time. This lifting weights, this might make the difference.'•"
But before anyone can begin to contemplate what the Buckeyes will look like in 2008-9, the future of 7-foot-1 freshman Kosta Koufos must be ironed out. Koufos, who played out of position on the block with his back to the basket all season, must decide if he'll join last year's freshmen (Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and Daequan Cook) in vaulting to the NBA after one season at Ohio State. Or he could take an offer worth millions to play in Greece, his parents' homeland.
"As of right now, I'm just taking it a day at a time," Koufos said after cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I haven't even talked to myself about it."
A year ago, Matta had no problem with all three players jumping to the pros. This time around, he believes Koufos might gain by sticking around campus for at least another year.
"I think he could really help us and help himself by coming back," Matta said.
Butler will be hard to replace, particularly since there's no one in the pipeline who seems to be ready to fill his roles as playmaker and scorer. P.J. Hill played well in spots while spelling Butler, but he's not an offensive threat.
Incoming freshman Anthony Crater, an Associated Press state player of the year in Michigan, will have to learn a lot in a short time to earn playing time.
Another prized recruit, B.J. Mullens, will likely fill the post spot. If Koufos comes back, the Buckeyes would have their tallest and most talented 1-2 punch ever in the frontcourt.
Starters Evan Turner and David Lighty are back, along with shooting guard Jon Diebler, Lauderdale, Eric Wallace, and Kyle Madsen.
This year's AP Mr. Basketball in Ohio, William Buford of Libbey, also will vie for playing time. So will Walter Offutt, a prep star out of Indianapolis, hometown of Oden and Conley.
No matter who is back and what the lineup is, next year's team will be more versatile and flexible than this one. The Buckeyes were hidebound to play zone defense all year. Even though it was effective, it limited what they could do in other areas or prevented them from adapting during games.
Matta, now a glittering 105-35 in his four seasons at Ohio State, is excited about the possibilities. So are others.
"Coach Matta is one of the best recruiting coaches out there," Koufos said. "He's going to lead us to the promised land."
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