Coaching Job by Matta a Season-Long Shining Moment
By Brandon Castel
BOSTON — With a Final Four celebration going on around him, Ohio State coach Thad Matta looked across the arena at the TD Garden Saturday night, his eyes glancing from one smiling face to the next as he searched for his parents in the crowded sea of scarlet and gray.
smiles after OSU's win over Syracuse.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Before he could find them, Matta was intercepted with a bear hug from one of his assistant coaches.
“He’s done a great job and it’s an honor to be a part of his coaching staff and be able to share in a moment like this,” said Greg Paulus, the former Duke University point guard and Syracuse quarterback who was hired as Matta’s video coordinator before last season.
“With his program, his staff, the players, it’s something special and I just wanted to thank him for letting me be a part of it.”
A year ago, Paulus was working as an assistant at the United States Naval Academy while Matta coached his team to a Big Ten championship and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Led by seniors Jon Diebler and David Lighty, along with star freshman Jared Sullinger, the team seemed unbeatable during much of the season—losing a total of two games heading in to the tournament.
But Ohio State ultimately fell flat in the tournament, losing to Kentucky by two in the Sweet 16, which prompted some to question whether Matta was really among the elite coaches in college basketball.
“For Thad to cement himself as one of the best coaches in college basketball, winning the Big Ten is sometimes not enough,” said assistant Dave Dickerson, who worked under Gary Williams for two of Maryland’s Final Four appearances, including the national championship in 2002.
“You have to win that big game. You cement your legacy by going to Final Fours and winning a national championship.”
Fast forward one year, and the Buckeyes are headed to the Final Four for the first time since 2007, and the 11th time in school history. It is the second time in six seasons Matta has coached his team to the promise land, but this year’s run was a lot different than the one with Greg Oden and Mike Conley back in 2007.
“He probably doesn't get the credit he deserves, but this is probably the best coaching job he's done since he's been here,” said assistant Jeff Boals, who joined the OSU coaching staff in 2009 after two seasons at the University of Akron.
“He kept on coaching these guys and staying positive and pushing the right buttons on a daily basis. He's an unbelievable coach.”
After falling short of the ultimate goal in last year’s tournament, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 3 in both the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and the AP Top 25 to start the season.
Matta had his star big man back in Jared Sullinger—the National Freshman of the Year—along with Aaron Craft and William Buford, but his team was extremely raw compared to the one with Diebler, Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale.
A Season on the Brink
The Buckeyes featured 10 freshmen or sophomores on their roster, most of whom had never played a meaningful minute in a college basketball game. One of the team’s two upper classmen was Evan Ravenel, a fourth-year junior who transferred from Boston College and sat out last season.
“It’s a young team and they did a great job of buying in,” Paulus said.
“Coach is a leader and everyone follows his lead. He’s got a lot of experience. His success speaks for itself. It’s a long season, so sometimes you have to push different buttons and keep everybody getting better in the right direction.”
After early-season wins against Duke and Florida in the nonconference schedule, it looked like the Buckeyes were heading in the wrong direction as they hit the middle of their Big Ten schedule.
They allowed Brandon Paul to go off for 43 points in a loss at Illinois on Jan. 10. Then came the month of February, and three losses in a matter of 15 days, culminating with home losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin.
“Throughout the course of the season, even in late January and early February, we got off to a tough start during the Big Ten,” Boals said.
“At that point, we weren’t a Final Four team, but Thad preaches one game at a time.”
The players seemed frustrated with the fact they had failed to live up to their preseason hype, something Matta felt was a result of last season’s success—not to mention Sullinger’s aura—rather than a true testament of where the Buckeyes were at the start of this season.
“I felt like maybe they were trying to set us up,” Matta said of the preseason ranking.
The team’s frustration came to a head—especially for Sullinger—during Ohio State’s 63-60 loss to Wisconsin on Buford’s Senior Day. Sullinger scored eight points and had six rebounds in 33 minutes as the Buckeyes blew a 50-42 second-half lead.
Turning the Tides
It was the second home loss in the last three for a team that had won 39 straight in Columbus.
“That was one of those games where we had a lead down the stretch and lost it,” Boals said.
“We had to play our last two on the road and a lot of people counted us out, but we ended up co-champs in the Big Ten. That’s a testament to Thad and what he’s done with this program.”
Matta had thrown his entire team out of practice just one day before that home loss to the Badgers, and at one point called them the “worst practice team” he has ever coached. But even in the midst of despair, Ohio State’s coach refused to lose hope in his team, or in this group of guys.
“That’s not his nature. His nature is to stay positive when things are hard; lighten up and have fun and smile,” Dickerson said.
“That’s what this team did. What he does to this team is give them a calming voice and a calming leadership. When you have adversity, that means a lot.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
The team’s lone senior agreed.
“Absolutely. Ever since I’ve been here, he’s always been like that,” Buford said.
“He has great faith and confidence in his players.”
Instead of giving up and accepting that his team was what it was—a “round of 32 team,” as he called them at one point—Matta forced his players to get back to the basics. He sat down with his star big man and challenged Sullinger to play with the kind of passion and energy this team needed.
“At the end of the day, he told me this team goes as I go,” Sullinger said back in late February, “and just to play my game.”
There was never a guarantee any of it would work. Matta had tried before to push the right buttons with his teams—specifically the 2007 team—but what he did with this team this year is worth remembering, even if this is as far as it goes.
“What he’s done with this team this year, especially after the game we lost to Wisconsin at home, it has been miraculous that he kept this team together,” Dickerson said.
“He made us go back to the fundamentals with half court defense and we haven’t lost but one game since then.”
Boals couldn’t agree more.
“I think Thad is an unbelievable coach,” he said.
“He treats these guys fair, but pushes them when he has to. He’s a very positive coach, and I think he’s done probably his best coaching job and nobody has realized it.”
If they haven’t yet, they will soon enough.
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