Tournament Season - Nothing Like it
By John Porentas
March is here.
The second-biggest thing that happens in March is that spring arrives and the winter wheat in Ohio starts turning green.
The biggest thing is that basketball tournament time arrives.
For the record, I am one of those reactionary old fogies that still believes that a successful regular-season defines a team, that regular-season championships are to be coveted and cherished, because excellence over the long haul trumps being hot for a week or two.
I am also not above admitting that this is one of the most exciting and most fun times of year. There is just nothing like it.
For fans, it's a time when you can get involved in a really direct kind of way. Every bracket that gets filled out is a declaration that the filler-outer is involved and interested. It's our chance to be involved as more than just observers, but as participants if you will, and that is a big part of what makes this all so spectacularly fun and interesting.
For players and coaches, it's something else.
For those few teams who won a league championship, a conference tournament is a chance to reaffirm their excellence and maybe improve their seeding in the NCAA tournament. For the overwhelming majority of teams, however, it's a second chance to win something and leave a legacy as a winner.
Last year's Buckeye team is remembered fondly as a team that won the Big Ten tournament and made a deep run in the NCAA tournament. What many people have forgotten is that their regular-season record when tournament time began was 22-8. This year's squad enters tournament time at 23-8, one game better than last year's team.
The point is, there is still time for this team to establish an identity and legacy as a winner, just like last year's team did. That opportunity presents itself beginning today when the Big Ten tournament begins.
The opportunity is there, but the hill is tougher to climb this year, if no other reason than the hill is higher. The Buckeyes qualified for a first-round bye last year and had to win just three games to claim the title. Missing out on the first round bye this year means that to defend their tournament championship crown they would have to win four games in four days. That's a tall order, but not one that they are yet willing to call impossible.
"It's a little difficult," said junior forward Sam Thompson when commenting on the prospect of having to play four games in four days.
"I remember last year when we played Wisconsin (in their third game for the championship) guys legs were pretty heavy, there was a little bit of fatigue going on.
"I remember playing five games in eight hours in AAU, so I think we're in good condition, we have the players that can do it, that we're tough enough to do it. If we're fortunate enough to play four games in four days we will play our best basketball on the fourth day."
Matta's teams have had a habit of doing that at tournament time. His teams have advanced to the B1G tournament championship game five-straight years and seven of the last eight. They are tournament warriors, so much so that other coaches around the nation have reached out to Matta to find out what his magic is.
"Believe it or not I've had a lot of coaches call me and ask," said Matta.
Unfortunately for those coaches, and even for Matta himself, he's at a loss to explain why he is so successful.
"In terms of preparation, in terms of pre-game speeches, in terms of what we eat, it's kind of always the same. I don't know. I wish I had a secret," he said.
Indeed. Matta may need that secret more than ever this year because this year the climb to the title game is three wins, not two, in a league that demonstrated during the regular season that there are no pushovers. His Buckeyes will face last-place finishers Purdue on Thursday, but the Boilermakers won five games in the league and seem to be on the upswing.
"We have seen them over the course of the past couple of weeks play some unbelievable basketball" said Matta.
"They're a team that we know what they're going to do defensively, we have a real good feel for what they're going to do offensively. I think their defense, the physicality that they play with, they're going to cut you, they're going to do all those things. We can't give up easy baskets in transition."
If the Buckeyes get past the Boilers, the Nebraska Cornhuskers await them in round two, a Cornhusker team that will have been resting and waiting on Thursday while the Boilermakers and Buckeyes clawed it out for the right to play them.
"They (Nebraska) had a couple guys really get rolling. They're a little bit older than what they appear next to their names. Those guys are playing at a very, very, very high level right now. They've got a little momentum going for them and that's been a good thing for them," said Matta.
As if they needed it, the Huskers will also be motivated. They are not seen as a mortal lock to make the NCAA tournament, so they will be playing to extend their season with a bid to the big dance. If that is not enough, they will also be fresher than whoever they play by virtue of their bye. It's a tall order if the Buckeyes advance, but Matta has found a source of inspiration that he will remind his team of if they get to that second game.
"UConn played six in six days and won it, so if you want to feel sorry for yourself...," said Matta.
Hang on. It's tournament time. Anything can happen, and probably will.