LOS ANGELES — For the Ohio State basketball team, the wait begins.
The wait for the pain to recede and the big picture to settle in after a season of great reward fell one game short of a second consecutive Final Four.
The wait to learn if it will be favored to do even more next season — or whether star forward Deshaun Thomas will declare for the NBA draft.
The wait to see how a pair of heralded recruits — including St. John’s Jesuit senior Marc Loving — will fit in on a veteran team.
As the Buckeyes (29-8) move past their 70-66 loss to ninth-seeded Wichita State in Saturday night’s West Regional final, coach Thad Matta spoke proudly of a redeeming 2012-2013 season while predicting Ohio State will have “a heck of a basketball team next year.”
“We’re finally going to have more than one senior on the team, which we haven’t had in a couple years, so that will be unique,” Matta said. “You look at [Wichita State’s] experience, they had a lot of seniors and you see what a difference that makes.”
The biggest question is whether Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, will play his final year of eligibility to give Ohio State its entire starting five back.
The answer is probably not. He is widely viewed as a mid to late second-round pick — similar to what he was when he decided to return for his junior year. Thomas may have little to gain by staying while his evasion of questions regarding his future Saturday night point to his exit.
“I want him to make sure that we educate him, make sure he gets the process of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s best for him,” Matta said. “I think there is a possibility he could go, but I want to make sure it’s right for he and his family. There’s a possibility he could stay.”
Still, even if Thomas leaves, a late-season rush offers OSU hope it would remain one of the Big Ten’s top teams. After an uneven first three months of All Deshaun All The Time, the Buckeyes stomped into the Elite Eight on an 11-game winning streak defined as much by their defense and balance as Thomas’ scoring. Ohio State would return four starters and likely plug in sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross as the fifth.
Ross, the Buckeyes’ breakout star of the NCAA tournament and their only other player confronted with NBA whispers, left no doubt on his plans.
“I’m coming back for next season,” said Ross, a 6-foot-8 one-time superstar recruit who averaged 17.7 points in OSU’s last three tourney games and hit the game-winning shot in a Sweet 16 win over Arizona. “I really haven’t even thought about leaving. The only thing I’m focused on is this season right now.”
So next year’s rotation will probably look familiar, with All-Big Ten junior Aaron Craft and junior Lenzelle Smith starting in the backcourt, Ross and sophomore Sam Thompson at forward, 6-foot-11 sophomore Amir Williams at center, and sophomore Shannon Scott coming off the bench to play alongside Craft in a two point-guard lineup.
Not to mention the new additions. The 6-foot-8 Loving, who was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball by the Associated Press, and Baltimore guard Kameron Williams are both ranked by Rivals.com among the nation’s top 100 recruits and will arrive this summer.
“I know we’re all hurting,” Craft said. “It’s very tough to end the season here so close to what you worked for all year, but this team came together like no team I’ve been a part of. I’m excited to think about next year.”
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.