March 20, 2013

Matta sustains success at Ohio State

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In any season, earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament is impressive on its own- validation in the form of the tournament's selection committee believing that you're worthy of being recognized as one of the country's top-eight teams. But for Ohio State, the No. 2 seed that the Buckeyes were assigned on Sunday is just a small piece in the even bigger picture of the state of their program.

When the second-seeded Buckeyes (26-7, 13-5 Big Ten) tipoff with Iona (20-13, 11-7 MAAC) in the NCAA tournament's first round on Friday, it will mark the sixth time in the past eight years that Ohio State has entered the Big Dance as a top-two seed. Under head coach Thad Matta, the Buckeyes earned No. 1 seeds in 2007 and 2011, and No. 2 seeds in 2006, 2010, 2012, 2013.

In today's day and age of college basketball and one-and-done players, that type of sustained success is almost unprecedented, and shows just how far the Ohio State program has come since Matta took it over in 2004.

"Hell yes it is," Matta said when asked if the Buckeyes' run of top-seeds is an accomplishment in and of itself. "Do you know how hard that is? That's unbelievable. The thing that I'm most proud of is we've been at Ohio State for nine years and we set out to build a top-level college basketball program, and I think we've done that."

It's hard to argue Matta's point.

The 45-year-old head coach has amassed a record of 111-45 in nine seasons in Columbus, while leading the Buckeyes to five Big Ten regular season championships and two Final Four appearances. Ohio State's streak of three consecutive conference crowns came to an end this season, but the 2012-13 Buckeyes managed to find some salvation in winning last weekend's Big Ten tournament in Chicago.

The fact that Ohio State will be raising any type of banner as a result of this season may just be evidence that this has been Matta's best coaching job yet.

After all, it was just a month ago that the Buckeyes suffered a 71-49 defeat at the hands of Wisconsin. The beat down from the Badgers sent Ohio State stumbling into fifth place in the Big Ten standings, with just five games remaining in a seemingly disappointing regular season.

However, after the mauling in Madison, the Buckeyes bounced back. It started with a win over Minnesota and continued with a victory over No. 4 Michigan State. By regular season's end, Ohio State had won five consecutive games- including a 67-58 triumph over Indiana in Bloomington- and had a shot for the league title on the season's final day, but ultimately came up short when the Hoosiers clinched the league outright with a win over Michigan.

Matta, for his part, didn't find the Buckeyes' turnaround all that amazing.

"As the head coach, you're always thinking big picture," Matta said. "I knew we had some mountains to climb. I think it just goes to show you how fun the season is and there's ups and downs to it. It's never going to go the way you want it to. If you've got good kids and you stick to it, good things are going to happen."

Having played for Matta for three years, on three very different teams, and in three very different roles, Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas credited the family atmosphere that Matta has created for the Buckeyes' refusal to hit rock bottom this year.

"We stayed in the 'O' and we never looked back," Thomas said, referencing a phrase that Matta introduced to the team before the season started in an effort to keep the players together. "We had some tough times, but we had some tough times last year, and we came out a No. 2 seed again."

Regardless of how far the Buckeyes advance in this season's tournament, the team's current string of success comes in what was supposed to be "down year" for Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost their leading scorer and rebounder from a season ago in Jared Sullinger, as well as their programs third all-time leading scorer in William Buford, yet still find themselves as a trendy pick by experts and analysts to advance to a second consecutive Final Four.

For that, Matta should be commended, but the Ohio State coach deferred praise for this season's success to his players.

"When you lose two great players off a team, the next year is extremely challenging, especially when you had gone so far," Matta said. "Kids can take things for granted. They can assume things are going to be easy because they got the scarlet and grey on. These guys have fought, these guys have competed from the day the season ended last year in New Orleans they've done a great job."

Their head coach may just have something to do with that.

[ Click here to follow the Buckeyes to Dayton for their first weekend of games ]


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