Men's basketball: Matta stresses core values to keep Buckeyes united
Coach Thad Matta claims the net in Value City Arena after Ohio State finished the 2010-11 season as Big Ten champion.
In his 12 seasons as a head coach, Thad Matta has always carried with him what he calls the “core values” of his program.
He was introduced to those values while serving as an assistant under Barry Collier at Butler in the late 1990s. Collier had resurrected “The Butler Way,” which had been established decades before by legendary coach Tony Hinkle. It encompassed five principles that everyone in the program was expected to live by, both on and off the court: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.
When Matta met his first team of Ohio State players on July 9, 2004, he told them: “ ‘The Ohio State Way’ is now in effect.”
And so it has been for the past eight years, during which the Buckeyes have won five Big Ten championships and reached the Final Four twice.
That is not to say the way has been all smooth sailing. There has been turbulence, most recently last season when the Buckeyes lost three times in five games in February by playing like anything but a team that would advance to an NCAA semifinal little more than a month later.
Jared Sullinger was knocked around in home losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin, and was annoyed that officials had seemingly turned a blind eye to it. William Buford and Deshaun Thomas launched mystifying shots at inopportune moments, causing some to wonder whether they already were auditioning for NBA scouts. Other players were unhappy about not playing more. Matta said the team lacked toughness to finish games after a close defeat at Michigan and the one to Wisconsin, the first time in his tenure the Buckeyes had lost on their Senior Day.
“When teams got into us a little bit, and into our heads, we got frustrated,” Thomas said.
They got out of their game.
And then, faster than Thomas could take another shot, they got back into it. They won their last two games of the regular season, at Northwestern and Michigan State, to gain a share of a third consecutive Big Ten championship, and they rode the momentum to the Final Four.
“We had our backs against the wall … and we played as a team again,” point guard Aaron Craft said. “We didn’t care who scored, we didn’t care who got the rebound, as long as we did what we needed to do for the team to be successful.
“No one else was going to fight for us. We needed to fight for each other. That probably was what put us over the top.”
That also gave Matta an idea for how to better try to avoid a recurrence of similar dysfunction anytime soon — such as this season.
In Matta’s office now, while the team’s locker room is renovated, sits a large white board with a “Block O” insignia on it. Printed around the eight sides of the “O” are the core values of Matta’s program at Ohio State. He has added three tenets — trust, respect and accountability — to the five he took from Butler.
Inside the “O” are the signatures of 11 players, four coaches and three other staff members. They are “inside the O,” and there Matta wants them to stay. He told them as much after players returned for the fall semester in August.
“What I said was, ‘This team has to be in the O (because) if somebody gets outside it, we’re done,’ ” Matta said. “We talked to these guys about the outside influences, and ‘If they’re able to pull you out, we’re done, we’re not going to be an effective basketball team.’ ”
“Outside influences” are anything a player hears or sees that doesn’t come from himself or someone else who is inside the “O.” These can include family members, friends, the news media or anything they are exposed to on social media. Matta said such influences are his biggest concern because he saw the effect they had on his team last season, causing bad practices that resulted in bad games.
“The climate of college athletics now, there are so many distractions, so many forces that can bring a team down in a split second,” he said. “(I’m) just trying to get guys to understand that us in this ‘O’ are the only guys who can affect winning and losing and how we play.
“This court is the only place it matters. It’s the only way you can be effective. You either play, or you don’t play. Whatever anybody writes or tweets or puts on the Internet or whatever, that’s really irrelevant. It’s all right here.”
Junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said last season was “eye-opening” — and hopefully a lesson learned.
“We recognized that when one person steps out of that ‘O,’ we’re going to lose,” he said. “I think everybody here wants to win. Therefore, I think guys will want to stay inside the ‘O.’ ”