After the Ohio State basketball team’s regular-season finale Sunday, DeShaun Thomas was asked about his future.
Had the junior star just played his last home game?
“I want to know, too,” senior teammate Evan Ravenel said to Thomas in the news conference after OSU’s win over Illinois.
Thomas smiled and replied with the stock answer area hoops fans will be hearing a lot over the next few weeks.
“We’ll think about that decision at the end of the tournament," he said.
The specter of early departures for the NBA draft has raised the win-now stakes for No. 10 Ohio State and sixth-ranked Michigan this March, though especially up north. While OSU has successfully withstood a flood of blue chip-prospects taking off for seven-figure paydays — the Buckeyes have had seven first-round picks leave with eligibility remaining since 2007 — UM now confronts the same double-edged scenario.
A program without a first-round draft pick since Jamal Crawford in 2000 appears to have three players with decisions to make after the season. Sophomore point guard Trey Burke — the Big Ten’s player of the year — and freshman forward Glenn Robinson III are viewed as first-round picks while junior Tim Hardaway, Jr., is projected for the second round.
It is a testament to sixth-year coach John Beilein’s rebuilding of Michigan basketball and an enviable problem. Winning is more about the Trey’s and Joe’s than the X’s and O’s. As postseason play begins Thursday at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, the newfound riches have spawned an elephant in the Wolverines’ locker room: They better win now because the window for big-time success could be closing.
Talents like Burke come around, on average at Michigan, once a generation. Beilein, 60, calls UM’s first recipient of the league’s top honor since Glen Rice in 1989 "as good as any player I’ve ever coached," which can safely be translated to the best. Though not said aloud, the Wolverines no doubt feel an urgency to capitalize on what most draft analysts believe will be Burke’s final season.
ESPN and other draft analysts project Burke, who averaged a league-high 20.2 points and 6.4 assists during the Big Ten season, as no worse than the 17th pick.
"There's really just not that much left for him to accomplish at Michigan," said Joe Kotoch, a Cleveland-based former NBA agent who analyzes the draft for ProBasketballDraft.com. "If he puts up 20 and 10 next year, I just don't see that making a drastic improvement on his draft stock. He's already the No. 1 pure point guard in the draft. He's borderline lottery, arguably top 10. If I was advising him, I would say this is the time to come out. You're not going to move up anymore. Next year, with a deeper draft class, with more perceived elite prospects, it's just the perfect storm for him now."
Analysts are more split on Robinson’s future. The 6-foot-6 forward is a case study in the value of production vs. potential, with some NBA teams sure to put more stock in his tantalizing physical gifts than his inconsistent play as a freshman. A sampling of four mock drafts had Robinson, who averaged 10.0 points as a starter this season, between 12th and 25th overall.
"I think Robinson stays," Kotoch said in a phone interview. "While he's got the ability to go in the lottery this year, I think a lot of things have to go right for that."
Hardaway and Thomas, meanwhile, face similar decisions over whether to return for their senior year. Thomas’ is intriguing because it once seemed a matter of fact he would bolt after this season. The 6-7 forward considered leaving after the Buckeyes’ run to the Final Four last year, then returned as a preseason All-American and largely made good on the billing. Few players nationally are more valuable to their teams than Thomas, who was the Buckeyes’ leading scorer in 23 of 30 games this season and captured the league’s overall scoring title.
Yet many see the middle of the second round as the ceiling in this year’s draft. ESPN draft guru Chad Ford writes glowingly on Thomas’ shooting range, rebounding, and versatility but questions his "indifferent" defense and tendency to "fall in love with his perimeter shot." Thomas shot 35.9 percent from beyond the arc and 44.2 percent overall this season.
"The more I'm hearing, the more it sounds like he is planning on coming back," Kotoch said. "If his goal is to get drafted, that's probably a good idea. I think he's a borderline draft pick this year."
If Thomas returns, that’s good news for OSU. If not, a program that has won four of the last seven Big Ten titles and boasted a first-team all-conference selection eight straight years will move on.
As would Michigan if its roster is sapped. Beilein has already signed two Rivals.com top-50 recruits and four-star Anthony Wayne forward Marc Donnal in the 2013 class.
Yet coaches know nothing is guaranteed for the future. For OSU and Michigan this March, the time is now.