COLUMBUS (AP) — After a quick knockout in the NCAA tournament, for the third year in a row the big question surrounding Ohio State’s program is: Will he stay or will he go?
Coach Thad Matta is awaiting official word as to whether freshmen B.J. Mullens and William Buford and sophomore Evan Turner will be back.
All he knows for sure is that the turnover in players ends up hurting his team when a game comes down the stretch, as it did in Friday night’s double-overtime loss to Siena.
“Having guys on the floor that have been in these situations you know without a doubt it’s something that is advantageous,” he said after the 74-72 loss that left his team at 22-11.
Two years ago, freshmen Greg Oden, Michael Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook left Ohio State after their singular season — which lasted all the way to the national championship game — to make themselves available for the NBA draft.
A year ago, Kosta Koufos spent a year as a college player before also leaving.
Now, before Matta can really start planning for next season, he’ll wait for word from Mullens, Buford and Turner.
Turner and Buford indicated immediately after Friday’s double-overtime loss to Siena that they were returning to Ohio State. But as any parent can attest, teenagers sometimes change their minds.
Mullens said he was happy with his first year at Ohio State but almost no one thinks he’ll be back.
He is a 7-foot tower of promise who had a very up-and-down season with the Buckeyes. He averaged 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds a game while shooting 64 percent from the field. Then again, he seldom shot farther than 5 feet from the rim, with most of his points coming on uncontested dunks off backdoor passes.
An elite recruit out of suburban Columbus, he was voted the top sixth man in the Big Ten this season but never really embraced Matta’s defensive tenets — which explains why he always came off the bench. He started just two games.
But some mock drafts have him going in the top 15 NBA picks, which likely means the pros can flash enough greenbacks in his face to make him the fifth Ohio State player in three years to take the money and run.
The Buckeyes had no seniors on the roster, so they will definitely be more experienced next year. Turner would give Matta a centerpiece on offense. He led the Big Ten in scoring and was the go-to guy in the waning moments of every close game: handling the ball, driving to the hoop and either shooting or feeding the ball to a teammate.
“It was just a good growing season,” Turner said. “We’re glad we got our foot in the door in the NCAA tournament. But this is Ohio State basketball. We’ve got different standards. Coming in fifth in the Big Ten and getting an early out from the tournament isn’t what we want. So [we’ll] just go back, have some great workouts, be ready for next November and get it cracking.”
Post player Dallas Lauderdale, point guard P.J. Hill, shooting guard Jon Diebler and Buford — the conference’s freshman of the year after averaging 11.3 points a game — provide a solid core. Jeremie Simmons and Walter Offutt provide support on the perimeter.
Trying to fill Mullens’ sizable shoes will be 7-foot UAB transfer Zisis Sarikopoulos and 6-8 junior-college transfer Nikola Kecman, who had six points and five rebounds in 11 minutes in his only appearance for Ohio State this past season before injuring a knee.
The most important returning player will be David Lighty, the team captain and most experienced player coming into the 2008-09 season. He broke his foot in December and never returned, causing Matta to think about what might have been.
A couple of days before Ohio State’s NCAA game, Lighty horsed around with the team during a shooting drill. When he saw him, Matta said to himself, “Golly, if we only had him.”
He will next year. He’ll also have almost everybody else back.
Having gotten a taste of the NCAAs, even the difficult loss to Siena has the young Bucks wanting more.
“Guys are really going to work hard in the offseason,” Diebler said. “We just don’t want to settle for making the tournament.”