LOS ANGELES — Thad Matta’s ninth season at Ohio State is being judged as his best coaching job even though the Buckeyes fell short of what would have been their third Final Four during his tenure.
The reason, of course, was the 11-game win streak constructed after the team hit bottom with a listless loss at Wisconsin in mid-February. The streak ended with a 70-66 loss to Wichita State on Saturday in the NCAA West Regional final at Staples Center.
And the reason the Buckeyes were able to put 11 wins together at the most important part of the season was in large part because of Matta’s patience, amid much hand-wringing, to bring along a class of sophomores who helped drive the team to the brink of a second consecutive Final Four, something that hasn’t been done at Ohio State in 51 years.
“Despite the mistakes we may make during a game, coach Matta just keeps it all positive,” guard Shannon Scott said. “He doesn’t say ‘You’re doing a bad job,’ or ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ He just tells us to play our game and be ourselves and we’re going to be fine.
“When he says that, it gets your confidence back up.”
The Buckeyes (29-8), who finished one victory shy of their third consecutive 30-win season, had confidence issues on offense for much of the season because of a dearth of players who could make perimeter shots.
But Matta and his staff kept patiently pushing buttons until they struck gold with a guard tandem of Scott and Aaron Craft that made life miserable for opposing ballhandlers and transfused new life into the offense by creating turnovers and scoring off them.
While that took off, another sophomore, Sam Thompson, began seeing the fruits of his practice labors by becoming almost as much of a threat to make three-pointers as he was to dunk. That helped stretch defenses, which in turn allowed Craft to drive for layups or find teammates for open shots.
And shortly after that, Matta played a lineup that lacked a center for five minutes against Northwestern in an attempt to shut down the Wildcats’ perimeter scoring. What it ultimately did, also, was open the door for yet another sophomore, LaQuinton Ross, to grow into the confident and aggressive scorer who beat Arizona in the Sweet 16 on Thursday with a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left.
Ross scored 17 points against Arizona and 19 against Wichita State and was named to the regional all-tournament team.
Thompson said Matta’s approach “lets you relax a little bit. There’s no such thing as a perfect game in basketball. There’s no such thing as a perfect player. When you know your coach is going to stick with you through a mistake, you can really relax and just play the game and worry about making plays as opposed to worrying about not making mistakes.”
All the scholarship sophomores — Ross, Scott, Thompson, Amir Williams and Trey McDonald — are expected back and, with juniors Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr., will give the Buckeyes a more experienced lineup than they began this season with.
A third junior, leading scorer Deshaun Thomas, did not reveal his plans after the game but is expected to make himself available for the NBA draft. Ross, whose March breakout caught the eye of NBA scouts, said he will return to Ohio State.
Freshmen Marc Loving, a skilled forward from Toledo, and Kameron Williams, a shooting guard from Baltimore, will join the roster this summer, and Matta might try to add another big man, possibly a transfer, during the spring signing period April 17 to May 15.
“I had no doubts, ever, that this sophomore class would develop the way we have,” Thompson said. “Last year, when we came in, we all knew the talent that we had. We all knew what we were capable of doing on the basketball court. It was just a matter of getting out there and doing it in the game.”
They did that this season, and they have two left to do more.