Ohio State’s matchup with Texas Tech in Dallas Thursday is intriguing, but OSU head coach Thad Matta is doing his best to downplay the situation.
After Jim O’Brien was fired last summer, rumors swirled that Bob Knight would return to his alma mater to coach the Buckeyes.
However, Ohio State decided to hire Matta away from Xavier, and Knight remained at Texas Tech.
Matta and Knight have crossed paths, but they do not have a personal relationship.
“We really don’t,” Matta said. “I’ve met Coach a couple of times, but that’s been about it.”
Matta was asked about facing a coaching legend.
“Honestly, we’re not playing one-on-one,” he said. “Texas Tech is a great opponent and obviously a well-coached team. I think this is another tremendous challenge for our guys. I view Texas Tech as a very good basketball team. They’ve got depth and size and going to Texas will be a very good challenge for us.”
Coaches usually meet and chat for a few minutes before the game. Matta isn’t sure if he’ll approach Knight, or vice versa.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Matta said. “I’m usually so nervous before a game, trying to figure out if we’re going to be able to score, or stop them from scoring. So, I don’t know.”
Matta was asked if he gets extra adrenaline facing a great coach.
“No, I really don’t,” he said. “I really believe that my focus before games is on our players and making sure that we’re ready to play our best basketball.”
Matta grew up in Hoopeston, Ill. close to the Indiana border. He also played and coached at Butler University in Indianapolis. Being from that part of the country, he watched and admired Knight’s career at Indiana.
“No question,” he said. “He built Indiana basketball into one of the best programs in the country for an extended period of time. I think that’s a tribute to who he is and the kind of coach he is.”
Matta heard the Knight-to-OSU rumors like everyone else over the summer. So, what was his reaction when it looked like Knight would be the next coach at OSU?
“I think if Coach Knight would have been here… I could have seen that,” Matta said. “He played here, won a national championship here, and obviously he’s a proven winner and has done a tremendous job.
“I think the one thing that you always see with a guy like him is his former players and the respect that they have and how he’s taken care of them.”
Playing against the Red Raiders (5-1) will provide a big-game atmosphere and will help the Buckeyes (6-2) prepare for Big Ten play.
“Yeah, and I think Clemson was as well,” Matta said. “That was an incredible environment for who was there. Their students did a tremendous job.
“The good thing is that it’s not at Texas Tech. I don’t know how far it is from Lubbock to Dallas, but I know a couple years ago (Xavier was) there and we played Oklahoma and it was like a home game for them. So, I’m sure it will be kind of the same thing.”
The Texas Tech game will be a good measuring stick for the Buckeyes, but Matta says it won’t be much different than any other game.
“Honestly, they all are,” he said. “Where we are at with our team, we’re still trying to find that consistency and taking away the bad spells that we have is what I’m personally after right now. Knowing that this is a very good opponent, I think it will continue to shed light on what kind of team we’re going to be.
“From our perspective, let’s say going back to the Portland State game, I felt we did some good things there. But we still had some lapses. We’ve got to get through those and overcome and I think all things are correctable that we’re not doing right now.
“I think against (Texas Tech), they play a little bit similar to Clemson. They get up and pressure you man-to-man and really push the ball in transition. A big thing is rebounding. They do a tremendous job on the boards. We’re going to have to rebound the basketball Thursday night.”
Matta says the Red Raiders are one of the top teams in the Big 12.
“I think they look like they’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “I know the young man they lost – I think it was Andre Emmett – was a tremendous player. But they have plenty of talent to go around. They look good.”
Ohio State has played well at times this season, but Matta was asked what he can do to really get his team over the hump.
“Well, I think, No. 1, you have to defend your ass off,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to get stops. (Texas Tech) is what I consider a very high-powered offense. They’re averaging around 90 points a game.
“And the other thing is you’ve got to finish plays on offense. I go back to the Creighton game, late in the game, we got the shots we wanted, they didn’t go down for us. Thursday night is a game where you’ve got to step up and make your free throws. I think things like that are very important to have a chance to win.”
Texas Tech defeated OSU 80-72 in Columbus last year, but Matta has not watched the entire film of the game.
“Just watched the edit,” he said. “I haven’t seen it all yet. I know our assistants watched it. We got a couple things off it. But we’re not going to mention last year. I think we’re playing a different way and hopefully our mindsets are a little different. But, as coaches, we’ve looked at it and what they try and do to certain guys and that kind of thing.”
Senior point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham is expecting a tough challenge out of the Red Raiders.
“Texas Tech, they’re a very athletic team, I know that,” Fuss Cheatham said. “They’re very aggressive on the defensive end. They like to force a lot of turnovers and I think for us to win we’ve got to take care of the ball and rebound. Those are our keys.
“Going on the road is pretty fun. We’re going down to Dallas, so we’re going to have to be some road warriors down there.”
Ohio State’s players might be thinking about facing Knight, but they’re not letting on.
“No, actually, no,” Fuss-Cheatham said. “We’re not really worried about the coaches because we’re not playing them, we’re playing their team. So, we haven’t talked about it or anything like that. I mean, it’s always cool to play against a legendary coach, but it’s not really on our mind.”
In last year’s game, did Fuss Cheatham think to himself, “Wow, that’s Bobby Knight down there?”
“No, actually, no,” he said. “I remember after the game I was thinking to myself, ‘I don’t even think I looked down at the bench when I was sitting or playing.’ You know, when you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re really not thinking about who’s the other coach.”
Ohio State’s players knew that Knight was a hot topic after O’Brien was fired. What does Fuss-Cheatham remember about that time period? Was he ready to play for Knight?
“I really wasn’t too sure,” he said. “I mean, there was a lot of things that was happening with Coach O’Brien and stuff. Obviously, we heard a whole bunch of rumors of who could possibly come in, and obviously Bobby Knight’s name came up. And with Bobby Knight, you really don’t know what to expect. I guess you’d have to wait and see if he would come and then you’d have to see how he is. But I didn’t really have any thoughts about it too much.”
Fuss Cheatham says Texas Tech looks a little bit better than Clemson on film.
“I think so far this is going to be the most aggressive, athletic team we’re going to play,” he said. “This is probably going to be our biggest challenge so far. And obviously going on the road is kind of tough, even though it is a so-called neutral site. Since it’s still in Texas, they’re going to have a lot of fans. But, yeah, this is definitely a big test for us. If we can get this one, it would be a good measuring stick for us.”
Fuss-Cheatham sounds like a recording of Matta when asked what the Buckeyes need to do better.
“As a team, we just need to continue to focus on defense and rebounding,” Fuss-Cheatham said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can score. I’m not really worried about the offensive end. It’s just trying to hold guys under 40 percent shooting, or 44 percent shooting. We definitely want to get 75 percent of the rebounds. Those are our keys and I think if we can get those we’ve got a good chance at winning.”
Although he won’t get a chance to play in the postseason this year, Fuss-Cheatham is excited about the rest of the season. He enjoys playing in Matta’s up-tempo style.
“Yeah, I feel great,” Fuss-Cheatham said. “I think this style fits me pretty well. We’re pretty freelance out there. We’ve got a few plays, but if the play breaks down, we’ve got a few guys that can score and penetrate and I think that’s my strength is getting into the lane. So, I think this style of offense fits me pretty well.”
Safe to say that Matta’s offense has less structure than O’Brien’s did?
“I wouldn’t say less structure,” Fuss-Cheatham said. “We’re just not a half court team. When we have to run our half court stuff, that’s fine. But when there’s opportunities, we’re out running. Our motion offense, we’re just cutting. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it, it’s just get to your spots, spread out the floor, make sure the five is in the post, and play from there.”
The game will be televised on ESPN at 9 p.m. Eastern. Ron Franklin, former OSU assistant Fran Fraschilla and Stacey Dales-Shuman will call the action. … The Buckeyes are just 19-23 all time against Big 12 schools. … Ohio State will retire John Havlicek’s No. 5 jersey Feb. 27 against Wisconsin. During his OSU career, Havlicek won a national championship (1960), averaged 14.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. The Buckeyes were 78-6 during his career. Havlicek is the fourth OSU men’s basketball player to have his number retired. He joins No. 11 Jerry Lucas, No. 35 Gary Bradds and No. 22 Jim Jackson. After graduating from OSU, Havlicek starred with the NBA’s Boston Celtics.