ATLANTA - Once upon a time, Michigan's Fab Five returned as one and made an encore run as their one shining moment.

Conventional wisdom suggests Ohio State will not get a similar mulligan. Certainly, all those pingpong balls can't be mistaken.

Sure, four of the Buckeyes' five talented freshmen figure to be back, headed by lead guard Mike Conley Jr., who sticks the keys in the ignition. And coach Thad Matta has another five very capable bodies coming in next season, in what's been rated a Top 10 recruiting class. The group includes 7-2 McDonald's All-America Kosta Koufos and Jon Diebler, the leading scorer in Ohio high school history. If that's not enough, Matta already has received commitments from five more studs who will arrive in 2008, a haul that features B.J. Mullens, a Columbus native who stands 7-1.

Whatever Matta is peddling has become contagious.

So who knows? The future might be just as good, or maybe even better. But right now, that doesn't matter. Because this team was built for this season. And it was built around the manchild in the middle, Greg Oden, your two-time national high school player of the year. He came with a singular mission. It had nothing to do with second place.

He might be the next great center at the next level. He was a difference-maker in his short stay at this level. He is expected to announce very shortly that he is skipping the rest of his college career to begin making a living.

That's something he didn't want to talk about last night.

When someone asked him about the NBA, he shot an angry look and said: "Next question." And then, after a pause, he said, "Please don't ask that question [again]."

When he moves on, he'll make an extremely comfortable living. Still, he'll depart without a ring. And that's forever.

"This is where we wanted to be, with a chance to play for the championship," he said. "We just didn't get it done. We lost."

The Buckeyes got to the last game. It's something they hadn't been able to do in 45 years.

The program is set up to be a factor in the immediate future. But it's a future that won't include Oden.

His final game ended with OSU's fourth loss. In one of those, he didn't even play because he was recovering from wrist surgery. And the Buckeyes won 35 times, mostly with him, including the previous 22.

Last night it was Florida 84, Ohio State 75, at the Georgia Dome.

It was the game most everyone wanted to see. By all rights, the Buckeyes shouldn't have been here. They needed a late three-pointer to force overtime in the second round against Xavier, which was up by nine late. They trailed Tennessee by 20 late in the first half in the Sweet 16. And they were behind in the second half against Memphis in the Elite Eight and Georgetown in Saturday's national semifinals.

Losing to the defending champions, who returned their starting five when the NBA green was a bona-fide option, can never go down as a bad beat. Even when you finished the regular season as the top-ranked club. Oden, who was in foul trouble the entire tournament, finished this one with 25 points and 12 rebounds in 38 minutes.

It was some ride. The dilemma is, who has time to appreciate it while you're living it? Two decades out it might not hurt as much. Or, perhaps the pain will only deepen. It's hard to tell with this stuff. Oden could be sporting a handful of rings by then.

Maybe we should thank the NBA for changing its rules so we at least got to see him play for one season on scholarship. His presence was good for the game. So were the Buckeyes. Just as Michigan was 15 years ago.

One more win would have put the Buckeyes over the top, made it a story to pass on to the next generation. In the end, they had to settle for being the closing sidebar. For Oden and Conley, they will always have those three straight Indiana high school titles on the resume. That's forever, too. This was the first elimination game they'd lost since their first year at the prep level.

"It hurts to lose any game," Conley said. "It's been a while since [I] lost a postseason game like this. It was a great run. I don't know what else to say . . . " *