Rob Oller commentary: Matta takes OSU where few football schools go
The main reason Ohio State deserves applause for its play under coach Thad Matta — the Buckeyes have been seeded No. 1 or No. 2 in six of their past seven NCAA Tournament appearances — has more to do with football than basketball.
Powerhouse football schools traditionally don’t excel in basketball, and especially not at the highest level of the NCAA Tournament. The reasons are multiple, but essentially the best high-school players want to attend basketball schools, not football schools that happen to play basketball. Similarly, the best college basketball coaches want to work where their sport is king.
Credit Matta for negating those obvious disadvantages by recruiting “basketball school” talent that nearly matches what North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky bring in. Of course, just coming close usually is not good enough to topple those hoops titans, but at least Ohio State — with Florida a close second — competes with those powers better than any football school in the nation.
Matta also goes against the grain by saying he is comfortable in the No. 2 chair behind the No. 1 throne on which the Buckeyes’ football coach sits. Can you see John Calipari at Kentucky, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke or Bill Self at Kansas welcoming the idea of living in the shadow of a football program?
And now we reach the portion of our program where the naysayers insist that excuses are for losers, that Ohio State basketball should reach the Final Four at least every other season — two appearances since 2007 are not enough — because, well, this is Ohio State.
Reality check: Since 1960, when the Buckeyes won the NCAA championship, only two other football-first schools have won national basketball titles — Michigan in 1989 and Florida in 2006 and 2007. Additionally, only five football-centrics — OSU, Michigan, Florida State, Oklahoma and Florida — advanced to the title game during that span.
It is the rare school that nabs titles in both sports. Even then, the mountaintop experience is short-lived. Florida won the 2006 title with NBA-type talent and benefited when that talent returned to school for the 2006-2007 season rather than turn pro. Since then, the Gators have fared no better than No. 14 in the final Associated Press poll, missed the tournament in 2008 and 2009 and lost in the first round in 2010 before rebounding to reach the Elite Eight the past two seasons.
By comparison, Ohio State missed the tournament in 2008, lost in the first round in 2009, reached the Sweet 16 in 2010 and 2011 and made the Final Four last season. The Buckeyes have finished in the top 10 of the AP poll each of the past four seasons.
Clearly, Ohio State and Florida, which won the 2007 football title by defeating the Buckeyes, have achieved the most success in the two sports. Part of OSU’s achievement can be traced to a willingness to invest millions to make the basketball facilities first rate, but to suggest the Buckeyes should compete for a basketball national title each season is wishful thinking at best and arrogance at worst.
The truth is that Ohio State should fall in behind the top-tier basketball powers, which include Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and even Syracuse, Indiana, Michigan State and Louisville.
That the Buckeyes hold their own against most of those schools speaks to the real success of the program. Ohio State is one of only seven traditional football powers in this year’s field, and the Buckeyes share the highest seeding with the University of Miami (both No. 2s) among those schools.
Not a bad little machine Matta has produced out of a football factory.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.