COLUMBUS — By the end, dejection mixed with relief.
The Ohio State basketball team’s 60-59 loss to Dayton in its NCAA tournament opener Thursday humanely called off a search that was going nowhere. Thirty-five games into the most confounding season of his career, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said he didn’t have the answer.
“I wish I did,” he said. “I would have used it about a month ago.”
Matta felt at a loss to end the season for the first time in his 10 mostly superb years at OSU. The Buckeyes were a flawed team — no big men, few shooters — that he never fully reached.
They could jack up their Big Ten-leading defense to beat Wisconsin or Michigan State one day, then lose to a conference dog the next. OSU went 10-10 in its last 20 games and fell to a double-digit seed in the NCAA tourney for the first time since a 2002 loss to 12th-seeded Missouri. The Flyers, who finished sixth in the Atlantic 10, were a No. 11 seed.
“[Fans] have deserved an answer all year,” senior guard Aaron Craft said. “They’ve seen us play well, and they’ve seen us play like we did [Thursday]. I don’t know. Nothing is guaranteed. That’s one of the tougher things to get across to people. My time’s done.
“Now it’s on these guys to learn from what this season’s been, how hard it’s been, how difficult we’ve made it for ourselves. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
And so attention shifts to the future.
After snapping a string of four straight Sweet 16 trips, Ohio State’s intention of reclaiming its place among the nation’s elite programs appears within reach but no guarantee.
While the Buckeyes will welcome a top-five national recruiting class, they must replace Craft — and possibly junior star LaQuinton Ross — and find an effective big man.
The post-Craft era, especially, will feel strange. For all the hand-wringing over his uneven jumper, the four-year starter from Findlay was the pulse of the team. He was the Big Ten’s all-time steals leader, the Buckeyes’ career assists leader, and in Matta’s view, “one of the all-time greatest players to ever put on the scarlet and gray.”
“That kid has probably meant more to this program than anybody’s ever meant to this program, just in terms of what his teams have done in his time here,” Matta said. “Obviously, you don’t like the way this ends, but he's special.”
Add in the wait on Ross and the uncertainty grows. The Buckeyes’ mercurial leading scorer (15.8 points) said he believes he is ready for the NBA but is undecided on his future.
ESPN projects Ross as the No. 28 overall prospect. Other mock drafts peg him for late second round.
“He’s got to sit down and look at it,” Matta said. “He’s capable of coming back here and having a great senior year if he chooses to do that.”
If Ross enters the draft, as some suspect, that would leave soon-to-be senior forward Sam Thompson and senior center Amir Williams as the Buckeyes’ only two returning starters. OSU also loses guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr.
An early guess at next year’s lineup puts senior Shannon Scott at point guard, sophomore Toledo native Marc Loving at power forward, and five-star freshman D’Angelo Russell at shooting guard.
Russell — who along with Loving has the long-distance stroke OSU badly missed — is one of three incoming players ESPN ranks among the top 27 prospects in the nation, teaming with Illinois forward Keita Bates-Diop and Pickerington forward Jae’Sean Tate.
The Buckeyes also signed three-star center David Bell of Garfield Heights, though he is viewed more as a project, leaving a still-outsized question mark in the post.
While Williams is a returning starter, the 6-foot-11 former McDonald’s All-American has yet to approach his billing. Matta is reportedly pursuing graduate transfer Anthony Lee of Temple.
The 6-9 center, who has one year of eligibility remaining and could play next season, averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds for the Owls. Among the schools interested include OSU, Indiana, Florida, Louisville, and Georgetown.
DELLA VALLE LEAVING: Amedeo Della Valle has announced he will Ohio State to play in a professional league in Europe. The sophomore guard from Italy averaged 4.0 points per game this season.