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October 10, 2013

For Ohio State, Elite 8 loss burns as motivation

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Now a little more than six months removed from Ohio State's deflating finish in the Elite Eight, Lenzelle Smith Jr. said such memories still remain on a constant rotation in his head.

"In the back of mind, the only thing that plays is we lost to Wichita State with a chance to go back to the Final Four," the senior guard said at the team's annual media day Thursday.

"I think people -- their speculations -- they won't say anything because they're so excited about this season and they want to see what we do this year but a part of me is still holding onto that and I kind of use that as a small candle flame to light up this year."

After all, the 70-66 loss to the Shockers in Los Angeles abruptly ended the Buckeyes' 11-game winning streak and denied coach Thad Matta's crew back-to-back trips to college basketball's mecca.

"I can just tell you right away from that flight home, it was one of the longest flights of our life. Everybody was down, depressed because we knew it was a game we should've had. That game could've been getting to the Final Four again," said junior center Amir Williams.

LaQuinton Ross, who surged for Ohio State throughout the postseason, fought himself on whether or not to keep watching the rest of the postseason.

"I think the hardest part is losing and then you're going home and you actually watching those other games on the TV. I told myself 'I'm not going to watch the game' but when you get home it's like the biggest thing on TV. You get on Twitter, you can't get on the social media without you seeing somebody rooting for that team so you got to turn it on and you've got to see what's happening," he said.

"That definitely was the hardest part for me going back home and seeing that we could've been still playing right now. People could've been watching us on TV right now."

Williams said the Buckeyes are trying to prevent that from happening again.

"Everybody was just down for a couple of days but after we watched that national championship game -- some people did, some people didn't --after it was talked about, after everything was all said and done, we made a point of emphasis that we all had to get back in that and gym and make sure that these type of things never happen again," he said.

Really, Williams and Ohio State seem rather blunt when discussing what expectations have been laid out for a team that finished 29-8 a year ago.

"We plan on getting back into the Final Four this year," he said.

The Buckeyes, of course, are tasked with doing that minus Deshaun Thomas, who was selected with the 58th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft in June.

Ross, whose game-winning three pushed Ohio State past Arizona in the Sweet 16, might be given much of that load.

"I approach it like I approach every other season, man," he said. "Just come in, doing what I got to do to help my teammates and I know a big part of that is scoring the ball and that's what I do the best. I'm just going to try and do what I do the best."

And certainly, what Ross -- or more affectionately known as "Q" by teammates, coaches and fans -- does best is shoot a basketball.

But senior guard Aaron Craft said they won't let him carry the burden alone.

"I think we can have a team that can be very balanced. Obviously, we don't have a guy like Deshaun. LaQuinton's done a great job kind of not filling that void but taking bits and pieces out making it his own," Craft said. "But as a whole, we've done a better job of shooting a higher percentage and whether that translates further into the games, we'll find out."

Smith Jr. said the perceived lack of one particular dominant scorer could be a good thing.

"We don't have a guy that has to get that 20 points a game. I think last year it was a luxury and I don't think we even had it last year who had to get those 20 points a game I think that kind of slowed down our offense it kind of caused a lot of problems with us mentally on the court," he said.

"I think that if guys just recognize that we do have some scorers on this team and if we play team, solid basketball and keep playing the type of defense that we play, I think we'll be OK. I think we'll slowly start to figure out that we don't need guys that need 20 points a game because that means we're going to have other guys that only score six. Is everyone is getting 12 or 13, it's going to be hard for defenses to stop that."

As the lone two seniors on the squad, Smith Jr. and Craft will be looked at as stabilizing forces during a season that begins in November and ends as late as April.

"You become a senior and some things are just patented in you. It's no more nervousness, no more jitters. You're a senior, you should know these things, you got to do these things, you got to do these things because you know what it takes," Smith Jr. said. "You've been in possibly every situation is there is to be at this point -- especially me and Aaron.

"We've been humiliation and humiliating other teams. We've had the privilege of being on each end of the spectrum. I think our poise at this level as seniors is right where it needs to be."

In fact, Smith Jr. said a 71-49 loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 17 in Madison that sparked the 11-game winning streak is still something brought up by Matta and the coaching staff.

"We're still talking about the Wisconsin game around here. We kind of used that as motivation too, that was public humiliation in Wisconsin and it just hurts," he said. "You try to make those types of things never happen again. As good as you get the next year as much success as you have, you still have to be humbled and be grounded by those type of games."

Such a philosophy could go a long way for a team gunning for the Final Four.

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