Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: BTT History Favors Buckeyes
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
I chuckle every time I think about it.
When the Big Ten first proposed following suit of other major conferences by instituting a postseason tournament, I was skeptical if not indignant.
The Big Ten doesn’t need to sell out and certainly doesn’t need to model itself after lesser conferences, I thought at the time. A tournament was just going to cut short and diminish the beauty of the regular season. Plus, why would you want to put your conference through something so grueling right before the all-important NCAA Tournament?
Well, it turns out the Big Ten Tournament – whether held in Indianapolis or this year’s destination, Chicago – has been a wondrous spectacle and among the most enjoyable events I have covered over the years. It also has been an especially good showcase for my alma mater, The Ohio State University.
It didn’t start that way, though.
Obie Had First Crack
The inaugural Big Ten Tournament was held in the Windy City in 1998 and the bottom-rung Buckeyes didn’t get to experience much of it. They were dumped 78-71 by rival Indiana on the first day in the 6-11 game. My most vivid memory of that endeavor is the excitement in the raspy voice of new head coach Jim O’Brien as he immediately shifted his comments in the United Center locker room over to the next season.
He basically promised better times were ahead, mostly because he knew his transfer point guard, Scoonie Penn, would make an immediate impact.
The Scoonster did, of course, joining forces with Michael Redd and leading the 1998-99 squad all the way to the Final Four. What is barely a footnote to that improbable season now is that the Buckeyes, a 2-seed in Chicago, were upset 79-77 in the BTT semifinals by last-place Illinois. I worked at Buckeye Sports Bulletin at the time and we ran a cover photo of UI guard Sergio McClain helping up a disconsolate Redd after the OSU lefty missed a baseline jumper that would have sent the game to overtime.
The UC crowd, of course, rooted for the underdog Illini, and Ohio State slipped up to its delight, but I quickly learned what happens in the NCAA tourney tuneup isn’t necessarily a precursor to the Big Dance. The Buckeyes shook off the disappointment, took advantage of a favorable draw, and made an enchanting postseason run.
The next two years brought more conference tournament agita for Buckeye fans – top-seeded OSU was dumped out of the quarterfinals by Little Engine That Could Penn State in the 2000 quarterfinals and OSU lost to Iowa in an ugly 3-6 Friday night foul-fest the next year.
Those two Ohio State teams also had short stays in the NCAA Tournament.
So there wasn’t much reason to believe the tournament was anything more than a sideshow, only adding to the unpredictability of March. But in those initial years I also came to appreciate the clean slate it provided, and a chance for a reporter like me to get a closer look at the Buckeyes and their league brethren.
The Move to Indy
Then came 2002 and the shift to Indianapolis.
The downtown setting and proximity to myriad shops, restaurants and bars was ideal, and the gathering of fans of all 11 conference teams was enthralling. Indy temporarily renamed streets in the area after each Big Ten school and local eateries and watering holes were assigned as fan headquarters for each of the combatants.
It all made for a great basketball environment. The play was pulsating, too. The locals enjoyed Indiana’s win over Michigan State to open Friday’s quarterfinals. That was followed by 9-seed Iowa’s stunning 58-56 win over top-seeded Wisconsin. The intensity in Conseco Fieldhouse ramped up the next day, as former IU favorite son Luke Recker was heroic in Iowa’s 62-60 upset of the Hoosiers.
On top of all that fantastic action, Ohio State was hitting a groove. The Buckeyes eliminated Michigan and a favored Illinois squad then wiped away the tired-looking Hawkeyes in the championship.
Boban Savovic was named the Most Outstanding Player and was joined on the All-Tournament team by Buckeye guards Brent Darby and Brian Brown.
O’Brien had another high point to go with the ’99 Final Four but ironically Savovic became part of his undoing and a major wart on the program as the NCAA later wiped away all of the games in which the Serbian off-guard appeared for OSU.
O’Brien led Ohio State on an unlikely run to the finals of the 2003 Big Ten Tournament – Charles Bass off the glass vs. Michigan State and Zach Williams going AWOL during the championship game with Illinois – but the program hit the skids in 2004. OSU was dumped by A.J. Moye and a bunch of Indiana walk-ons in an embarrassing Thursday loss. That summer O’Brien was fired amid the NCAA investigation brought on by the Savovic improprieties.
Enter The Thad Man
Even with the 2002 run erased, Ohio State officially sports a record of 19-9 in the Big Ten Tournament, which tops the field. The Buckeyes have produced 18 different players who were named to the All-Tournament team, which easily is the best in the conference. Along with the deposed Savovic, three other OSU players were named MOP – Greg Oden in 2007, Evan Turner in 2010 and Jared Sullinger in 2011.
Oden and Sullinger were freshmen at the time. Turner was a senior and ended up being named the consensus national Player of the Year in part because of one indelible moment – his 37-foot buzzer beater that knocked out rival Michigan in the ’10 quarterfinals and propelled the Buckeyes to a confetti-filled Sunday.
The Buckeyes were the 1-seed and didn’t play until noon on Friday. I was working one of my first assignments for SportsRappUp.com at the time and had just arrived to Indy that morning, unpacked bags still in my car. It appeared I was going to be heading out of town that night without ever dragging them into the hotel as the Buckeyes trailed 8-seed Michigan 68-66 with just 2.2 seconds to play.
That’s when the lanky Turner took an unguarded inbounds from David Lighty on a dead run, got across the time line in just two dribbles and launched his aerial.
“Got it!” screamed ESPN play-by-play man Dave O’Brien as the Ohio State fans and family members nearby erupted. Sitting in the seats directly behind me were Turner’s parents and I lucked into a great reaction shot. What I missed was the out-of-character response by head coach Thad Matta, who went all the way over near the bench screaming in the direction of head coach John Beilein, who made it known earlier in the week that he did not vote for Turner for Big Ten Player of the Year.
“Care to change that vote, Johnny,” Matta said, or something to that effect.
After veteran official Ed Hightower herded Matta back to his bench area, the head coach high-fived assistant Jeff Boals as if to say, “Isn’t this fun?”
Yes, it is.
The Matta era has coincided with some outstanding displays of postseason basketball and the Big Ten Tournament is his baby.
That same weekend, for example, the Buckeyes won a thrilling 88-81 decision over Illinois in two overtimes to advance to the final, where they absolutely clobbered Minnesota, 90-61. The second half was so dominant even Matta’s mouth was still agape afterward.
“I’m not sure we can play better than that,” he said.
Matta’s first Big Ten Tournament showing in 2005 was not earth-shattering. The Buckeyes edged 11th-seeded Penn State 72-69 on Thursday to secure their 20th win – now significant since Matta has never failed to reach that number in a season – but they were ushered out the next day in a lackluster 60-49 loss to Wisconsin.
Sunday is for Champions
In the seven years that followed, Ohio State has reached the Sunday championship game six times.
Outright regular-season champs in 2006, the Buckeyes actually were disappointed to fall short against Iowa in Indy that March. They blistered the field in Chicago the next year, though, with Oden, Mike Conley and company on top of their games.
In 2008, the Buckeyes suffered their only one-and-done BTT appearance under Matta, losing 67-60 to Michigan State in the 4-5 game. It was costly. OSU’s NCAA Tournament bubble burst and the Buckeyes were left to take on – and topple – the NIT field.
In 2009, OSU got back to the finals but lost a 65-61 decision to a veteran Purdue outfit in a terrific game. Last year was a similar story as Ohio State lost a 68-64 doozy to Michigan State. In between were the nut-cutting years of 2010 and ’11. Much like the close-shave win over Michigan in ’10, the Buckeyes had to go overtime to take down No. 8 Northwestern, 67-61, in the ’11 quarterfinals. Bags still in the car again. Never a dull moment.
Interviewing OSU players from the Big Ten Tournament as they react to their NCAA Tournament draw has become old hat for me because they usually are still on site on Sunday.
Matta has shrugged just about every time a reporter asks him his secret but he hinted at a reason on Wednesday before second-seeded OSU headed northwest to await the winner of Nebraska-Purdue on Thursday.
“These tournaments are for fans, so my thing has always been, ‘Let’s just go play basketball,’ ” he said. “I say that and I’m hoping that we’ve done to this point in terms of our preparation and the games that we’ve played throughout the course of the season have prepared us just in terms of everything that we possibly could see.
“There’s no magic speech or anything that I’ll give going to Chicago. We’ve kind of, honestly, been very laid-back going into this tournament.”
Something is magical, though, about Matta and conference tournaments. He sports of a mark of 16-5 in the BTT, which gives him a winning percentage of .762, tops among all head coaches in the history of the event.
Some coaches worry about wearing themselves out trying to win their league tournament; Matta doesn’t. He’s been known to leave his starters out there for the same amount of time as they averaged in the regular season, if not longer.
“We’re young guys,” point guard Aaron Craft said. “There’s time between this and the next thing on the list.”
Some alter their gameplan to go inside and not try to shoot from long range in such a huge building; Matta doesn’t.
In Matta’s first game on the sideline for the BTT, the Buckeyes fired up 31 three-point attempts against Penn State, a tournament record. The next year against PSU they launched 30 treys.
Matta said rest is more important and studying game film and tendencies needs to be more efficient during the tournament, but the goal is the same: Do what you have to do to win the game.
His players have bought in to that simple philosophy and see the value of this intermediary step between the regular season and the NCAA Tournament.
“You go into any tournament trying to win,” Craft said. “That goes back to when you first start playing basketball. It brings you back to AAU days. If we’re playing a game, we want to win, and if we’re playing our best basketball we have a solid chance to move on.
“We know that if we prepare ourselves to win a regular-season Big Ten championship that’s going to prepare us to play well in the tournament for the Big Ten and that’s going to prepare us well for the NCAA Tournament. We can’t expect to flick it on and off like a light switch and just not think of one and not worry about one.”
Now It’s Fun Time
Matta spent one year as the head coach at Butler and won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference regular-season and tournament title. In his three years following at Xavier, he went 39-9 in Atlantic 10 regular-season games and also grabbed A-10 tournament titles in 2002 and 2004.
Now he’s winning at a similar pace in perhaps the toughest basketball conference in the country.
Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, Matt Painter, Beilein, Bill Carmody, Tubby Smith, Bruce Weber – they’re among the best bench coaches in the country and Matta has defeated all of them in the Big Ten Tournament.
Even though this could be the most competitive BTT ever, the path to Sunday suddenly looks doable again. Three Big Ten teams are ranked ahead of No. 10 Ohio State but the Buckeyes are the 2-seed – and 2-seeds have done well. That slot sports an official record of 18-9 and has produced the champion five times in 15 years.
The hottest team in the conference thanks to a five-game win streak, Ohio State will face either 7-seed Purdue or 10-seed Nebraska on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network). A win would put OSU in the semifinal on Saturday (approx. 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) against either No. 3 Michigan State, No. 6 Iowa or No. 11 Northwestern.
The championship game on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) offers all kinds of possibilities with Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan all in the upper bracket, and, as usual, it all leads right into the unveiling of the NCAA field that evening.
“This is when the most fun happens,” Craft said. “This is where all that hard work you put in is supposed to start paying off and when guys are supposed to start having fun. But it’s still executing our system, believing in one another and going from there.”
The current Buckeyes aren’t sure who they will face and will be playing in the United Center for the first time, but like Matta-coached teams of the past they intend to enter the tournament putting the focus squarely on themselves.
This time they’ll have a chip on their shoulders as they enter the BTT as an “other” and not a regular-season champ for the first time in four years. That wasn’t secure until a last-second tip attempt by Michigan center Jordan Morgan rolled around the rim and bounded away in Sunday’s heated game against Indiana.
The Hoosiers won 72-71, secured their first outright regular-season title in 20 years, and enter Chicago as the top seed and favorite to win the BTT.
“Obviously we would have loved for things to have gone a little differently,” Craft said. “It was definitely out of our hands. As much as you want to blame Michigan, we’ve got to look at ourselves as well. You look back in the games we played in and we lost, we might have been able to steal one here or there that could have been the difference.”
The coaching staff is likely to remind the Buckeyes of that fact and that winning is still very much the aim. And despite his “laid-back” comment, Matta also promised that OSU’s last practice before heading to Chicago would be as grueling as the very first one of the season on Oct. 12.
“We didn’t play perfect Sunday (in the regular-season finale with Illinois),” he said. “You go back and look at the film Sunday night and it’s like, ‘Geeze, we’ve got a long way to go.’ But I like where this team is. I like where their mind is in terms of the togetherness, the attention to detail, and everything that involves preparing.”
In other words, look out, Chicago. The Buckeyes are coming back, and they brought their scissors and a stepladder.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.