Thomas' return keeps OSU in Big Ten elite

Until he misfired during a Final Four loss against Kansas (9 points), forward Deshaun Thomas had been the best player –-- arguably -- on the Buckeyes' roster throughout the NCAA tournament.

The left-hander’s versatility fueled Ohio State’s run to New Orleans with performances that raised his NBA stock.

But Thomas announced Friday that he’s decided to return to school for another year. And that call automatically keeps the Buckeyes in the national title hunt for the 2012-13 season, even with Jared Sullinger turning pro and William Buford graduating.

I think they’re a solid top-10 squad. Aaron Craft is back to harass opposing guards. And there’s potential among young players who didn't get a ton of minutes this season.

If former McDonald’s All-America center Amir Williams blossoms in the offseason and starts to fulfill his potential as a sophomore, the Buckeyes could make another strong run in the NCAA tournament.

But Thomas will be the focus of Thad Matta’s system. And I think his skill set will allow Ohio State to spread the floor and take full advantage of Thomas’ abilities, which we saw during the NCAA tourney.

While the Thomas announcement solidifies Ohio State’s position entering next season, the rest of the Big Ten is one giant question mark.

The league has the potential to send multiple teams to the Big Dance. But depending on who goes pro by the April 29 deadline (after April 10, any early entrant who applies for the NBA draft will lose his collegiate eligibility), it might not pack the same punch it did during the 2011-12 campaign.

Indiana and Michigan could join Ohio State in the preseason top 10, but that all depends on a few decisions that will be made in the coming weeks/days.

If Cody Zeller and Christian Watford return, the Hoosiers could compete for the national championship. Tom Crean is bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Zeller will be a Wooden Award candidate and preseason All-America center. If Watford builds on his Sweet 16 performance against Kentucky (27 points), he could be one of the best forwards in the conference.

Michigan needs Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to return. Burke, however, is more vital to John Beilein’s plans. With highly rated prospects Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson Jr. coming to Ann Arbor for the 2012-13 season, the Wolverines will add productive scorers who can contribute right away if Hardaway goes pro. But what will they do if they lose Burke? He might be the best point guard in the country if he comes back for his sophomore season. Without him, Michigan will still possess a talented, young roster. But the Wolverines could end up in Atlanta with Burke leading the way.

Minnesota also faces an uncertain future. The Gophers could be a borderline top-25 squad if preseason all-Big Ten forward Trevor Mbakwe returns. He missed most of last season after suffering a knee injury, but the NCAA recently granted the Big Ten’s No. 1 rebounder during the 2010-11 season a sixth year of eligibility. He’s expected to return -- assuming the Gophers have a scholarship for him. Tubby Smith has already reached the 13-scholarship limit, with two recruits joining the team next season. So Minnesota’s situation could get complicated, too.

Smith has asked the NCAA to allow the team to use a 14th scholarship next season. There’s also a chance that a player will transfer; five have left the program since 2009. But there are no guarantees right now for Mbakwe or the Gophers.

The Big Ten will be talented next season even if the aforementioned stars leave for the NBA.

But right now, it’s hard to project the league’s potential without knowing if its best players will stick around for another season.