Pick the adjective—euphoric, elated, exhilarating or even a bit overwhelming. In fact, relieved was probably the best way to describe how Jared Sullinger and the Ohio State Buckeyes felt as the final seconds ticked away in their victory over Syracuse.
Sullinger, who decided to return to school and forgo a chance at a top-five spot in the NBA Draft and untold millions, got what he came back for. Ohio State was in the Final Four.
It was the second time in six years for Thad Matta and the Buckeyes. It was also the 11th time in school history—good enough for sixth all time.
That being said, this isn’t something that happens on a regular basis. The Final Four is an elite club of college basketball teams. In fact, there are plenty of successful programs that have never even made one Final Four. Just ask Gonzaga, Xavier, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Missouri.
So, when is it going to happen again for Ohio State?
Even for a program as successful as the Buckeyes’ have, making the Final Four is a combination of talent, luck and getting hot at the right time. In a vacuum, the 2010-11 team was superior to the 2011-12 team, but it was the latter team that was playing late into March while Jon Diebler and David Lighty could only cheer with the rest of the alumni.
The optimistic fan would look at Thad Matta’s roster heading into next season and say a repeat trip to college basketball’s biggest stage can happen.
It is certainly possible—Aaron Craft is the best on-ball defenders in the country, Deshaun Thomas is a scoring machine who never met a shot he didn’t like and young players such as LaQuinton Ross and Shannon Scott have the potential to be solid contributors.
On the other hand, the glass-half empty crowd would point out that the losses of William Buford and Jared Sullinger—without a formidable recruiting class to help make up for their lost production—will be too much to overcome.
The truth, as is often the case in life, lies somewhere in the middle. The Buckeyes will be talented enough to compete in the Big Ten and possibly make a deep run in March, depending on matchups.
However, there are also a number of roadblocks standing in the way of a repeat Final Four trip. Depth will be a concern with only 10 scholarship players on the roster, many of whom are unproven players with little playing time under their belts. Additionally, the Big Ten—led by possible preseason No. 1 Indiana—should be the best conference in the country this year.
Even assuming perfect health, the losses of Sullinger and Buford, the lack of depth on the roster and the difficult schedule (which currently includes out of conference clashes with Duke, Marquette and Kansas on top of conference play) will prevent the Buckeyes from returning to the Final Four.
If not next year, then when?
While forecasting Final Four appearances multiple years in advance with such scientific methods as the gut feeling is undoubtedly 100 percent accurate, Ohio State fans should circle the 2013-14 season on their calendars. That is when the Buckeyes will return to the Final Four.
Much of this hinges on the decision that Deshaun Thomas will unquestionably have to make at the end of this season. To NBA or not to NBA, that is the question.
If Thomas returns for his senior season, the scarlet and gray will have a rarity in today’s college basketball world—a superstar senior. And, thanks to Aaron Craft, they will have two of them. Maybe lightning can strike twice.
Think Craft is a leader now? Wait until he is a senior. By then, the other point guards in the Big Ten will probably be filing harassment suits against the Buckeyes’ leading defender.
Combine that with the four-year chemistry that will have developed by that point between Craft and Thomas and Matta could send just the two of them on the floor for some early season games.
But they are going to need more than senior-leader versions of Craft and Thomas in Columbus to make it all the way to the Final Four. That is why this upcoming season is so vital to the Buckeyes’ long-term plans—it will provide much needed experience for potential young stars LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and Amir Williams.
All three of these players were highly touted recruits, and Scott and Williams were McDonald’s All-Americans. The talent is clearly there. All they need is a bit more seasoning (I apologize for the word choice if you were feeling hungry already after the McDonald’s reference).
Ross, Williams, Scott and even young Sam Thompson will all be upperclassmen by the 2013-14 season, meaning that the starting five and first player off the bench will all have much needed experience to go along with their talent.
That’s not to say there won’t be young and exciting players on the 2013-14 roster though. Scout.com lists 15 of the top 99 players for the class of 2013 as showing interest in Ohio State as of this writing.
Matta, who had a rare miss with the 2012 recruiting class, largely due to uncertainty surrounding the number of available scholarships, will certainly land a handful of these recruits. In fact, 4-star forward Marc Loving has already verbally committed to the Buckeyes.
There could be an incredible mix of talent on the Ohio State roster when play opens up in 2013. A combination of highly-rated recruits and upperclassmen such as Craft and Thomas is fairly enticing for any Buckeye fan.
This is the best chance in the near future for Ohio State to return to the Final Four.
Hopefully, they can make it a little farther next time. After all, the program is sixth all-time in Final Fours but only has one championship.
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