Ohio State men's basketball: A March man
Coach Thad Matta has guided the Buckeyes to their fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance; his teams are still winning when it counts most
Thad Matta has the second-best late-season winning percentage since 2004-05, behind only Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Before his Ohio State basketball program went up in scandalous flames, Jim O’Brien took the Buckeyes to the 1999 Final Four, their first in 31 years.
It was a grand moment, but one the former OSU coach viewed as more of an aberration when asked about it days after the Buckeyes returned to Columbus, having lost to Connecticut in a semifinal.
“Anybody that’s expecting Final Fours to be a yearly occurrence needs to start following Duke,” O’Brien said.
Now here are the Buckeyes under Thad Matta, O’Brien’s successor, just two wins shy of a second consecutive Final Four and third since 2007, when they lost in the championship game.
Ohio State (28-7), seeded second in the West Regional, has reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight season, something the Buckeyes had never done.
Behind Matta's 249-72 record in nine seasons at OSU lies a change in mindset at the top.
“Thad doesn’t hide behind the fact that he wants to win the national championship for Ohio State University,” assistant coach Jeff Boals said.
O’Brien, wanted a title, too, of course, but he always seemed more comfortable in the shadows. Matta thrives in the glare and talks about big goals to his players from day one of practice.
“Everything we do during the course of the season is built for right now,” sophomore forward Sam Thompson said.
Much of that progression is about attitude, about developing the confidence to handle one-and-done pressure late in the season.
“He practices all year preparing for March,” point guard Aaron Craft said. “March is always on the forefront of his mind during the season, and it trickles down to us.”
Craft’s go-ahead, three-point basket on Sunday with 0.5 of a second remaining beat Iowa State 78-75 and sent OSU to Los Angeles, where the Buckeyes will play sixth-seeded Arizona on Thursday in the semifinals of a regional ravaged by upsets.
If it defeats Arizona, OSU would face the winner of No. 9-seeded Wichita State vs. No. 13-seeded La Salle for a return trip to the Final Four. It’s a long climb from when the Buckeyes sat in fifth place in the Big Ten in mid-February.
“As a head coach, I’m always thinking big picture,” Matta said. “I knew we had some mountains to climb. There are ups and downs. It’s never going to go the way you want it to, but if you have good kids and stick with it, good things happen.”
The Buckeyes are riding a 10-game winning streak, which is nothing new under Matta this time of year. He is 54-13 in OSU games played in March and April for the second-best late-season winning percentage since 2004-05, behind Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Matta just took the Buckeyes to the Big Ten tournament title game for a seventh time in the past eight seasons, and won it for the fourth time. He’s two victories shy of a fourth 30-win season in seven years.
Matta’s late-season success — the Buckeyes have been seeded No. 1 or No. 2 in six of their past seven NCAA Tournament appearances — suggests his teams remain fresh when others fade under a long season’s grind.
“He has an uncanny feel for people,” OSU assistant coach Chris Jent said. “He knows what time to press buttons, what time to make guys laugh, when to push hard, and when to leave them alone. He masters the psychology of guys and keeps them playing at a high level.”
Coaches and players praise Matta for having an unwavering upbeat attitude, and it showed on Sunday when the Buckeyes, Craft in particular, were coming unglued.
OSU’s 13-point lead over Iowa State with 6:51 remaining had been trimmed to one when a “media timeout” was called with 3:53 to play.
“There’s a positive energy that (Matta) brings to the team,” senior center Evan Ravenel said. “During the timeout he said: ‘This is cool. This is what we wanted, fellas. We came here for a game, and they’re giving us one.’ ”
The Buckeyes were exactly where they talked about being throughout the season — in a tight game, with everything on the line.
“Even before we play some nonconference opponents (in November and December) that we’re supposed to beat by 30 points, he tells us this game is not about this game,” Thompson said. “This game is about getting better as a team, getting better for March.”
And like so many of Matta’s teams, the Buckeyes are winning when it counts most.
“We’ve gone to four straight Sweet 16s,” Boals said. “Now we want to take the next step, advance to the Final Four, and win it.”firstname.lastname@example.org