The ball bounced off the front of the rim and fell to the floor at the First Niagara Center. Ohio State’s season was over.
Dayton had a 60-59 advantage when the buzzer echoed throughout the rafters and signaled the end of the careers of two of the most accomplished players OSU has ever seen — senior guards Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Aaron Craft.
But as their season ended Thursday in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, next season’s outlook is somewhat of a mixed bag with the unexpected departure of a bench player and an incoming Top 5 recruiting class.
As it currently stands, OSU is set to have just 11 players on scholarship when practice for the 2014-15 season opens this fall. Losing Craft and Smith Jr. will likely hurt from a leadership standpoint, but coach Thad Matta has five returning players who are on scholarship and will be seniors, provided forward LaQuinton Ross doesn’t bounce to the NBA.
“Both guys, you look at how many games they’ve won here, championships they’ve been a part of, it’s really an amazing four years,” Matta said of Craft and Smith Jr. March 7. “With that said, both guys have had a major impact on this program in terms of making it better. And that’s what we ask guys to do.”
Craft said in the locker room after his final game as a Buckeye that junior guard Shannon Scott needs to step up as a leader next season, but filling that void can’t just fall on him.
“Obviously he has some big games under his belt and he’s experienced this, but it’s not just going to fall on one guy’s shoulders. Guy like (junior forward) Sam (Thompson) can help, too,” Craft said.
The number of players on scholarships is one less than it would have been even with the departure of Craft and Smith Jr., because sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle told Matta and his staff Saturday that he intends to head back home to Italy and pursue a professional career in Europe. Della Valle posted a message to his personal Twitter account, @Ame_DV_33, Saturday afternoon announcing his farewell.
“I wouldn’t trade this experience with anything else, B1G Champions, the run to the Elite 8, the 12-0 year, man was that special,” the message read. “It is now time for me to begin new experiences as I decided to head back to Europe to continue to play PRO basketball.”
So with three men gone and the potential to lose another in Ross — who said his decision would come “in the next couple of weeks” — Matta and company have some rebuilding to do.
Matta signed yet another top 5 recruiting class for next season, bringing in guard D’Angelo Russell, forwards Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate and center David Bell. It’s a class Matta said he’s excited to coach.
“The biggest thing with this particular class is we got what we wanted,” Matta said Nov. 14.
Russell, 21st in the ESPN top 150 rankings, is likely to figure largely in the rotation next year to help replace Craft and Smith Jr.’s production. Tate is recovering from surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder and is out for the rest of his senior season so it remains to be seen when he will be 100 percent, and Bates-Diop and Bell likely have their work cut out for them to get minutes unless Ross leaves.
Another player who will figure into the equation is current freshman guard Kam Williams, who sat out all year after battling through mono and missing the bulk of training camp.
All season long, something appeared off with the team, whether it be a lack of instinct, absence of ability to consistently put points on the board or an undependable post presence.
“(Fans) deserve an answer. They deserved an answer all year. They’ve seen us play well, and they’ve seen us play like this,” Craft said after the loss to the Flyers Thursday. “Nothing is guaranteed and that’s one of the tougher things to get across from people. My time’s done now, so it’s on these guys to learn from what this season’s been. How hard it’s been. How difficult we’ve made it on ourselves at times. That’s what they gotta do.”
Returning to try and fill in the blanks are juniors in Thompson, Scott and center Amir Williams, who all averaged at least 7.5 points per game in OSU’s 25-win campaign. Junior center Trey McDonald is also set to return, but he only averaged 2.0 points per game and 1.7 rebounds off the bench this season.
Scoring points will be a premium for the Buckeyes next year, as aside from Ross, no one really stepped up to be that second scorer the team so desperately needed.
“It’s one of those things where everybody wants to be that guy. But the guys got to be willing to do the things in terms of work ethic and in terms of the system and knowing that,” Matta said. “You see guys have great off-seasons, and hopefully we have that.”
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