Rapp Around: SEC You Later

By Jeff Rapp, March 27th, 2010

ST. LOUIS – Great and memorable seasons aren’t supposed to end like this, aren’t intended to provide searing hurt like this, but, as Gus Johnson sometimes reminds us, this is March Madness.

Madness would be one word to describe the feelings of the Ohio State players in the Edward Jones Dome locker room Friday night, especially as reporters asked them questions moments after a heartbreaking 76-73 loss to cocky Tennessee in the Sweet 16 like, “What went wrong?”

Most of the Buckeyes who just saw their season clipped short a victory shy of 30 couldn’t conjure up much of an answer. Dallas Lauderdale and William Buford shrugged and struggled to find words. Senior P.J. Hill sat in one corner in a fog. Walk-on Danny Peters was in the other choking on tears.

Half a stadium away in a designated NCAA Tournament media room, head coach Thad Matta found a succinct conclusion.

“They were physical and they got some angles on us,” he said. “But I thought our offense for the most part was good enough to win the game. It just probably came down to our defense and the easy buckets.”

It was a very accurate portrayal, all except the probably part. Ohio State allowed the Volunteers to rack up 50 points in the paint. Five-oh.

The last time there was a layup line as long as that in this town, Rick Majerus was taking his entire entourage to an all-you-can-eat buffet at the Sizzler. It’s possible Wayne Chism and J.P Prince recorded a putback basket and a dunk while I was writing this sentence.

UT battered Ohio State on the boards 41-29 and collected a whopping 20 on the offensive side. When the Midwest Region’s 6-seed bothered to run a set it usually ended with a diagonal pass for a bunny before the Buckeyes could even react.

“When we collapsed they did a good job of passing, obviously, with their height and athleticism,” OSU guard Jon Diebler said. “When it comes down to it we didn’t get enough defensive stops.

“It hurts to go out like that because we felt we could have done a lot better things on the court. Obviously you never want your season to end.”

Of course, one bad performance should never define a championship year. The Buckeyes finished 29-8, won a piece of the Big Ten regular-season title, wiped the field at the league tournament, earned a 2-seed in the NCAA tourney, and, despite the flawed effort, were ahead of Tennessee with 40 seconds to play in a game to decide an Elite Eight bid.

The 2009-10 campaign showcased the amazing all-around skills of Evan Tuner, who became a 6-7 point guard, stat sheet stuffer and clutch performer before our eyes. Diebler broke the school’s career three-point record and became a 1,000-point scorer, as did David Lighty. Buford followed up his breakthrough freshman season with a more impressive sophomore campaign. Lauderdale led the Big Ten in field-goal percentage and blocked shots en route to making the conference’s All-Defensive team. Matta was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

“It’s a special group in a special situation,” Lauderdale said, voice trailing. “Oh, man. When I think about what we could have done. We tried, though. This is going to hurt for more than a minute. This is probably going to hurt in (summer) workouts.”

But who will be around for that offseason work?

Turner is now projected as a top-three pick in the NBA draft and all indications are that he will pursue early entrance. Buford also would be drafted if he left, possibly in the first round.

“I hope everyone comes back,” Lauderdale said. “It probably won’t happen, but I would like it. You never know.”

When Buford was asked by one reporter if he planned to return, he said, “Absolutely,” but had a different answer to a similar question about next season moments later.

“I can’t even think about next year,” he said. “I’m so shocked from today. I can’t even speak on that right now.”

The paralyzing disappointment also was evident on Turner, who had a hard time sitting at the interview dais with his head up. It was Turner who as steaming down court with the ball and OSU trailing by three in the final seconds. And it was Turner who got up one three-point attempt, came up with the loose carom and tried to fire up another game-tying three only to have Prince reject it at the buzzer.

“You want the ball in the best player’s hands, and we had it,” Diebler said. “He’s made so many plays for us all year. So we’ll live with the best player in the country having the ball with 12 seconds left.”

Matta echoed the sentiment.

“I had no problem with him taking the shots,” he said. “That young man’s made so many huge shots for us. The three he hit with two minutes to go was a big one. Maybe a little irony that he got it.”

Turner’s shortcoming led to the inevitable question about his impending decision – if it’s not already made.

“I can’t give a percentage (on coming back) right now,” said the national player of the year. “It’s just sticking in my head. I really don’t want to go out like this. I don’t even know.”

Maybe some day, possibly even soon, the Buckeyes will get over this loss and even Turner can come to peace with what was accomplished. Then again, maybe not.

“He hates losing,” said Diebler, Turner’s roommate. “His goal was to get to the Final Four and he didn’t reach his goal. I lived with him for a year and I know how he is.”

With the Volunteers running over to their fans for an impromptu celebration and the OSU bench still begging the referees for a foul on the final shot, Turner simply walked off the court without shaking hands or a wave goodbye to the crowd.

“I understand the frustration,” Diebler said. “I know we were all frustrated. It’s tough because we didn’t have it. We didn’t have it tonight, and it’s a bad time not to have it.”