Even Matta Impressed by Ohio State’s Turnaround
By Brandon Castel
BOSTON — Thad Matta has said repeatedly that this Ohio State team, maybe more than any other, plays like it practices.
Photo by Jim Davidson
It makes sense, then, why the Buckeyes dropped their final home game of the season on William Buford’s Senior Day less than 48 hours after being kicked out of practice by their head coach.
Yet here they are, just a month later, one win away from reaching the Final Four for the first time in their lives.
“As I watched them unfold, we struggled early in terms of kind of mental toughness in practice, finishing out a two‑hour practice with the intensity it needed to be,” Matta said Friday in Boston.
“Which prompted me to say, in mid‑December, this is the worst practice team I've ever coached.”
That is bold statement considering what Mark Titus wrote about the 2007-08 team, and also the fact Matta has praised Aaron Craft for being one of the best practice players he has ever coached.
“The persona that he came into Ohio State with is something I think will be talked about for as long as I coach,” Matta said of Craft.
“I think his approach to practice and the pace and intelligence he comes in with every day. He probably leads the film room in, “coach, can you please rewind that,” as we’re watching film.”
But not everyone was approaching practice the same way. In fact, Craft’s commitment to bettering himself every day is a rare commodity, even among athletes. Matta didn’t necessarily like what he saw from the other guys on a daily basis.
“They can tell you, I told them—it was probably mid‑December—I said, ‘fellows, right now, you're a round of 32 team,” Matta said Friday as the team prepares to play Syracuse in the Elite Eight.
“(I told them) ‘We're going to be out in the round of 32 unless some things change. To their credit, I think that they understood the importance of all the little things, and that was always the challenge for me, to get them to understand the little things.”
Matta had to feel like he was fighting an uphill battle for most of the season, but he can remember vividly when he felt like the light finally went on for this group.
“What turned the corner for me was the night, that Tuesday night, when we realized up in Chicago we've got a chance to win a share of the Big Ten championship,” he said.
“And you win the last two games on the road, and it seemed like it sort of came together there.”
According to Matta, the biggest challenge facing his team in the early season was being projected as one of the top college basketball teams in the country, despite having so many new faces playing important roles that they did not play a year ago.
“It was unfair in my mind because you lose three starters, and you had so many unknowns on this basketball team,” Matta said.
“Really coming in, we knew that Will (Buford) could make some shots, and Jared could score in the post, Aaron could play defense. Other than that, I didn't know what else was going to happen with this team.”
What we are seeing now from the Buckeyes is what everyone expected out of the team at the beginning of the year, especially after their early nonconference wins over Duke and Florida.
“Go back to, let's just say, Florida‑Duke in November. We did a lot of good things,” Matta said.
“We still see clips from those games of great ball movement. The thing that I wanted was the consistency.”
It was hard to find early in the year, especially with new assistant Chris Jent implementing some new elements to Ohio State’s offense, but the Buckeyes seem to have found their rhythm at the right time of year, and that’s all that really matters.
“I think the beauty of this team is having five guys out there that can have spurts of scoring and finding kind of the hot hand,” Matta said.
“Finding the area where we can attack them. That's proven to be pretty good for us.”
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