Men's basketball: Keep guard up, Matta tells Buckeyes
Thad Matta said he has talked to his players “continuously” about not dropping their guard against anyone, starting with the 15th-seeded Gaels.
DAYTON — Thad Matta isn’t one to live outside the moment. But the Ohio State coach has gone back in time recently to try to make a point with his players about making the most of this moment in their lives.
“The last couple of years, we’ve had a bad half of basketball that ended our season,” he has told them. “Slip-ups cost you.”
The Buckeyes haven’t slipped in weeks. They have won eight games in a row heading into their NCAA Tournament opener against Iona tonight at University of Dayton Arena and in the process have become a trendy Final Four pick out of the West Regional, in which they are the No. 2 seed behind Gonzaga.
Matta said he has talked to them “continuously” about not dropping their guard against anyone, starting with the 15th-seeded Gaels.
“We got together Monday night,” Matta said before the team bused to Dayton yesterday, “and that was the gist of what we were talking about: what a great run we’re on. It’s not time to celebrate that now. It’s not time to change who this basketball team is. It’s not time to try to be somebody you’re not. …
“We have to do what we do. There are a couple standards in this program, and let’s make sure we play by them no matter who we’re playing.”
Two years ago, Ohio State was the No. 1-ranked team in the nation when the regular season ended but didn’t get past the Sweet 16. The Buckeyes could not get enough stops to offset the shots they missed in the final five minutes and lost to a Kentucky basket with 5.4 seconds left.
Last year they reached the Final Four but again faltered in the second half against Kansas, squandering a nine-point halftime lead and losing by two while Deshaun Thomas spent much of the half on the bench in foul trouble.
In each game, the Buckeyes shot poorly in the second half. But their problems were “more than shooting,” junior guard Aaron Craft said. “It’s playing defense and not really doing your job … not staying together. That’s what’s gotten us beat throughout this year as well.
“It’s definitely something you need to be aware of. You have to be ready for every game and every possession. Every possession now is very important. You never know what the end of the game is going to come down to and how important one possession can be.”
Lenzelle Smith Jr., who started alongside Craft against Kansas, said the Buckeyes “can’t crack” if they want to make another run.
“We can’t abandon our principles in our offense. We can’t abandon our defensive principles,” he said. “The second half we gave (Kansas) too many second-chance shots. We didn’t box out when we needed to. We didn’t get the big stops when we needed to. They came down and executed, and when we went down on offense, we tried to make miracle plays.”
Matta does not expect the Buckeyes to play perfectly, and has told them as much. They are not going to make every shot, nor will they keep their opponent from making any. He is more concerned with how they react when they don’t.
“Looking back on it, I’m glad Wisconsin went on the run against us and got us down nine the first half” of the Big Ten tournament championship game on Sunday, he said, “because a month ago we probably could have crumbled at that point. But guys stayed connected, stayed focused on what we had to do, and we were able to finish the half strong.”
Ohio State won that game 50-43. Now it’s on to the next.