Not one to ever be concerned by the way the media perceives his team, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta did remember being at least a little taken back by the high nature in which his team was regarded before the season.
Matta saw a team that had some proven pieces – Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, of course – but a squad that still needed to forge its own identity without Jared Sullinger and William Buford, cornerstone pieces from last year’s Final Four team.
“I don’t know how, with what we lost, we could have been remotely rated that high to start the season,” Matta said. “I’ve always said, ‘Let’s try to be there in the end.’ But I was worried about that and I made that known to the players.
“I told them, ‘We’re not a top-five team in the country today. Can we be at the end of the season? We’ll determine that through the course of the season.’ ”
The Buckeyes, of course, finished the season as the No. 10 team in the country – posting 23 wins in the process – and were an unfriendly roll away from earning its fourth consecutive Big Ten championship.
When bundled together, the Buckeyes are exactly where most of the preseason prognosticators figured they’d be heading into the postseason – as poised as any team in the country to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
“Yeah, I think so,” Matta responded when asked Wednesday if he felt the Buckeyes are now deserving of being included in the conversation with the country’s elite. “I don’t want to put a period on the end of (what we’ve done) because I want to make sure that this team continues.”
It’s funny how easy it is to forget what really happened this season.
Sure, Ohio State’s results speak for themselves, but the preseason forecasters might not have been as precise in their predictions as it seems.
There once was a long road ahead for the Buckeyes to get to this point, one where their only salvation was to put together wins in a hurry before they could earn back the national respect they had long lost.
“A lot of people had this team dead to rights a month ago,” Matta said.
There was once good reason to give up on Ohio State.
Rewind the clock less than a month and you would find a shell of the team that exists today, one that suffered a 71-49 blowout loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17 that has since been incessantly described as embarrassing by those affiliated with the program.
The loss not only put Ohio State three games back of conference leader Indiana with only five games remaining in the season, but players also admitted to giving up on the core defensive principles Matta has been attempting to drive home for years.
It all seemed to be deteriorating. After the Wisconsin loss, the Buckeyes were 1-6 against ranked teams, Thomas was the only reliable offensive weapon and the defense – the one thing OSU could typically count on – all of a sudden wasn’t up to par.
“Instead of falling apart, we did a great job of coming together and believing in the system, our coaches and one another,” Craft said. “As players, we kind of got together and talked to each other.”
What happened next has an argument for one of the most impressive turnarounds of the Matta era. The Buckeyes closed out the regular season with wins in each of their last five games, including a home victory against then No. 4 Michigan State and a triumph in Assembly Hall over then No. 2 Indiana on its Senior Night. That victory was especially sweet for the Buckeyes since the Hoosiers were attempting to sew up their first outright conference title since 1993.
But given the culture of today’s Big Ten – where normalcy has replaced anomaly with regard to upsets – Ohio State was able to climb into position to backdoor a share of yet another league title. Indiana, however, eventually earned the outright conference title with a 72-71 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor in its season finale, a game where the Wolverines saw a potential game-winning putback attempt roll tantalizing around the rim before falling off to the side as time expired.
So Ohio State isn’t the Big Ten champion this year, but Matta’s stance regarding the resiliency of his team and the way the Buckeyes finished the regular season wasn’t going to be altered by something that was out of his control.
“I’ll be honest, I am so proud of this basketball team,” the OSU head coach said. “I love the fact that they’ve kept working, they’ve kept practicing, they’ve kept the focus, and I like where we are now. We just finished the regular season, and with everything that’s transpired in college basketball, we’ve won five straight games. I told them, ‘You’ve got to be one of the hottest teams in the country.’ ”
And so begins the pursuit of something bigger than a conference championship, something that Ohio State has been 40 minutes away from under Matta but hasn’t won since 1960 – a national championship.
Just being back in the conversation signifies the Buckeyes are on track, a vast contrast to the point in the season when some even ventured to ponder whether the team could fall to a low enough point where its NCAA Tournament life could be questioned.
Perhaps when the season is over, this will be the coaching job separated from the rest on Matta’s already-impressive résumé. Maybe this will be the one that allows the coach to escape the reputation some detractors have created for him – that of being an excellent recruiter but one who lacks the necessary savvy with X’s and O’s to put his teams over the edge on the biggest of stages.
If nothing else, Matta is pleased to know that his team is something now that it wasn’t when the season began – one of the best in the country, and a team that emerged from a schedule currently rated No. 14 overall in RPI as a team that’s battle-tested and perhaps ready to achieve its ultimate goal.
“It’s always the goal of our program – I want us to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” Matta said. “I think we’re closing in on it.”
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