Matta Has Built Powerhouse Basketball Program at Ohio State
Success of Buckeye Hoops now Rivals that of OSU Football
By Brandon Castel
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- With Ohio State set to tip-off their 2011 NCAA Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena Friday, all of Buckeye Nation should have been focused on Thad Matta and the No. 1-ranked men's basketball team Thursday.
It wasn't. Not after the news broke late Thursday night that the NCAA had upheld the five-game suspensions for Terrelle Pryor and his four teammates, and that Jim Tressel would be joining them at his own request.
In a blink, Ohio State football was thrust back into the spotlight as Matta and his team faded again into the background, and therein lies the real shame. While Tressel and his players are stealing headlines for what they've done wrong, it is coming at the expense of a basketball team that does everything right.
"These guys have done an incredible job throughout the course of the season to put us in a position to be here," Matta said Thursday as his team prepares to play Texas-San Antonio in their opening game of the tournament.
"And I think it was funny, when you come off of three games in three days ending on Sunday evening, we were a little bit tired, beat down. And I was shocked when we got together again just how excited they were to be here."
But that's this group of Buckeyes.
From fifth-year senior David Lighty to freshman standout Jared Sullinger, this team seems to appreciate everything that embodies college athletics. In spite their fierce intensity and uncompromising drive to win, this group has an undeniable camaraderie that seems to transcend sports.
"If you have a good relationship off the court, it's just that much better on the court knowing what players like to do and don't like do to," Lighty said.
"So it's something that's great for us. We're not just doing it for ourselves; we're doing it for our towns and our state."
More importantly, they are doing it for their program.
When Matta took over the Ohio State program seven years ago, it was a one-sport school with a basketball team that helped bridge the gap between the bowl game and spring practice.
"I had never been to a game in the 'Shoe and the first game I went to, Cincinnati kicked off to us and we went four-and-out, and when the punter was running off the field, 105,000 people were booing," Matta said.
"I remember saying to myself, 'What have I got myself into?'"
Notice Matta said 'four-and-out,' which is a testament to the fact that he came from a school that lived and died with the basketball team.
"When I was at Xavier, I was probably the biggest college football fan you could ever find because there was nothing to do on Saturdays," Matta said, meaning he wasn't attending any home football games.
That changed the day Matta took over for the fired Jim O'Brien back in 2004.
Matta cuts down the nets at this year's Big Ten Tournament
Photo by Jim Davidson
"I remember we were in coach Tressel's office one day, maybe my first year there. We were with a recruit and he said our goal is to win the national championship in football and basketball the same year," Matta said.
"And I was like, 'Yeah, that's going to happen.' And I'll be darned, year-three we both played for it and didn't get it done."
The Buckeyes lost to Florida in the national title game in both football and basketball in 2007, but that doesn't take away from what Matta has accomplished in such a short time.
Ohio State had been to the Final Four under O'Brien, but not since the days of Fred Taylor in the 1960s have they experienced this kind of sustained success.
"I think that you just look over the time, I mean, our first year we were under sanctions. The second year we win the Big Ten. We're a 2-seed. The third year win the Big Ten and we're a 1-seed, play for the national championship," Matta said.
"We lost a lot of guys. We won the NIT the next year. Made the tournament. Last year, I don't know what year I'm on now, but we were a 2-seed. This year we're a 1-seed."
Not just a 1-seed, but the overall No. 1-seed in the tournament, and the top-ranked team in the country to end the season. They are the favorites to win the national championship despite the fact this roster should include Kosta Koufos, B.J. Mullens and Evan Turner, all of whom left early.
That's something Matta has become accustomed to during his time in Columbus. After making that run to the title game in '07, the Buckeyes lost Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Deaquan Cook after just one season.
A year later they lost Koufos under similar circumstances, and after that Mullens. They managed to keep Turner long enough for him to become the National Player of the Year, but even he left early after the Buckeyes were bounced from last year's tournament in the Sweet 16.
Yet here the Buckeyes are, back on top.
"I love where the program is and, quite honestly, that was the goal when we came seven years ago. To build a basketball powerhouse," Matta said.
"And, I don't know, you guys are the ones that determine that, but I like the position that we're in."
Who wouldn't? The Buckeyes have some of the top facilities in the country, and it has helped to attract some of the nation's best talent. That includes freshman Jared Sullinger, who might just be the best player in the country.
Even if Sullinger opts to follow in the footsteps of Oden and the other 'one-and-done' freshmen before him, Matta has another crop of young talent set to join the program next year.
It's a phrase usually reserved for the Ohio State football team, but in the case of Thad Matta, the Buckeyes don't rebuild, they just reload.
"I love where we are known as a 'football-basketball' school," Matta said.
"I think it's the perfect combination."
It's unfortunate fans are being forced to pay attention to the wrong sport.
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