Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
LOS ANGELES – The agony that often comes with playing in March was ever so evident following Ohio State’s game Saturday evening.
Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas slowly made their way to a press conference after their loss to Wichita State with their eyes glassed over and their heads down.
Inside the Buckeyes’ locker room, teammates of the junior guard and forward were even more noticeably distraught than their veteran leaders.
Freshman guard Amedeo Della Valle sat in a chair with his arms crossed, his cheeks puffed and tears streaming down his face.
Sophomore point guard Shannon Scott slumped in a corner with a white towel covering his head.
Sophomore forwards Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross stared blankly into the wreckage of emotional despair flooding the area around them.
Redshirt senior forward Evan Ravenel and junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. poured over their phones, never looking up.
Pain and sorrow showcased by student-athletes is commonplace following a loss in the NCAA Tournament, as the Buckeyes experienced in the West Region’s Elite Eight contest at Staples Center Saturday afternoon, when heavy underdog Wichita State ended OSU’s season in a 70-66 upset.
But that doesn’t make defeat any easier to cope with, as displayed by the postgame scene of the No. 2-seed following a loss to the No. 9-seeded Shockers.
Never is college basketball more equally cruel and rewarding than it is during the three-week roller coaster of emotions from early March until the first weekend in April.
From the NCAA Tournament’s first round through the Final Four, the sting of losing and thrill of winning are as heightened as ever.
It was just two days prior to OSU’s run coming to a close when the Buckeyes’ locker room was a place of smiles and laughs.
Thursday evening, after OSU beat No. 6 seed Arizona, 73-70, in the Sweet 16, the Lakers’ clubhouse – inhabited by the Buckeyes during their time in Los Angeles – was filled with happiness.
Craft, jumping up and down behind a sea of reporters, lifted his jersey up to his mouth in an attempt to distract Ross – the game’s hero who hit a 3-pointer with two seconds left to give OSU the win – who was being interviewed on camera by the Big Ten Network.
Scott, Smith and Ravenel argued over who was superior in the Nintendo 64 game “Mario Kart.”
“Whose name is at the top of the leader board, Lenzelle?” Scott teased.
“I’m clearly the best, don’t listen to them,” Ravenel roared from across the room.
There was none of that Saturday.
“It hurts,” Craft said. “We didn’t come out with the same intensity, the same fire today, and they did. It’s tough and it hurts.”
Part of the aching in the Buckeyes’ hearts can likely be attributed to the team that they lost to.
OSU entered Saturday’s bout with Wichita State as unquestioned favorites. The Shockers are a mid-major that didn’t even win their conference, the Missouri Valley. Wichita State’s roster is comprised of mid-to-lower level recruits, none of whom likely have a future in the NBA.
The Buckeyes returning to the Final Four after losing to Kansas in New Orleans last season was a near certainty to many. Of the dozens of national analysts that predicted the contest’s outcome, none went with the Shockers.
But Gregg Marshall’s squad proved against the Buckeyes that his team wears sneakers, not slippers, even though the apparently non-Cinderella program is making its first appearance in the Final Four since 1965.
“They were better than I thought,” Ross said.
More so, however, the suffering showcased by OSU’s players following the game is attributed to the simple logic that this specific team will never play another game together.
It’s a thought that never really enters the heads of the 20-something players until the final horn sounds.
For Ravenel, he’ll never don an OSU uniform again.
“It is tough. You definitely don’t want to leave a place like Ohio State because it is an awesome place. The love and support you get here is second to none,” Ravenel said.
Never during OSU’s game against the Shockers did the concept that the season could end enter the mind of the players. Not even when Wichita State got up by 20 points early on in the second half.
“Even though we were down by so many points, we still had the feeling that we were going to be OK,” Smith said. “You think as long as you play, it’s not going to happen to you and you’re not going to lose the game.”
But OSU did lose the game, and with the loss, the minds of the 12 Buckeyes that dressed for the contest were clouded when asked to reflect on the season.
The Buckeyes finished 29-8, won the Big Ten Tournament and had an 11-game winning streak from mid-February until Saturday night. Thad Matta’s squad had four wins against top-10 teams this season: Michigan, Michigan State (twice) and Indiana.
All OSU players could mostly think about Saturday, though, was the loss, and moving forward.
“There’s a lot of positives, but at this moment you don’t think about those,” Smith said. “Right now the only thing going through my head is that the season is over.”
Some already looked forward to next season. OSU loses just one player to graduation in Ravenel. Thomas, who said he going to “take some time” to make a decision on whether or not he’s coming back, could jump to the NBA.
Everyone else is returning. Craft and Smith will be seniors. The four sophomores that carried OSU in recent stretches – Scott, Ross, Thompson and center Amir Williams – will be savvied veterans.
“For my teammates and brothers that are still going to be here, we have some work to do. It’s definitely a bad feeling right now, but we need to make sure that this doesn’t happen again next year,” Smith said.
The man that could wrap his head around what the Buckeyes accomplished this season was Matta, who sat in a red chair at the front of OSU’s locker room. The coach smiled every time someone asked him to reflect on the past year.
“Everybody remembers the last game. I’m not going to,” Matta said. “I’m going to remember this season, because I’m very, very proud of what these guys accomplished this year.”
In time, Matta’s players will likely feel the same way.
But not yet.