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Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

Matta8_closeupLThad Matta is in his seventh season as head basketball coach at Ohio State, and he has already etched his name in the record books in some august company. By winning his fourth Big Ten championship in his first seven seasons, Matta joins Bob Knight, Tom Izzo and Wisconsin’s Walter Meanwell as the only coaches to reach that level of success that quickly.

Matta has a career mark at Ohio State of 184-56, a .767 winning percentage, which equals his overall career percentage, including his years at Butler (2000) and Xavier (2001-2004). He has been a success everywhere he has coached...taking three different teams beyond the first round of the NCAA Tournament, something that might have been expected from a guy who hails from Hoopeston, Illinois.

But despite one Elite Eight appearance with Xavier, and one Final Four berth at OSU, Matta has not been known for his postseason successes. On more than one occasion his teams have been bounced from the tournament by underdogs of one breed or another, and his resume is still lacking that which Knight and Izzo have achieved...a national championship.

Matta’s 28-2 Buckeyes are atop the national rankings as March arrives this season, so if he can enter the tournament in that same position, and avoid losing to an underdog in this year’s event, he will have avoided losing at all. The Iowa Hawkeyes gift-wrapped the outright Big Ten championship and the top seed in the conference tournament for him with a win over Purdue on Saturday, so now all eyes will be on OSU’s postseason performance in the role of favorite.

It might help to review Matta’s mixed March mark....starting from the beginning....


Matta in March

2004-05 -  OSU finished 20-12, but did not participate in postseason play. Their self-imposed ban on NCAA and NIT tournament action was taken in anticipation of NCAA sanctions for violations committed under previous coach Jim O’Brien.  The Buckeyes lost 60-49 to No. 23 Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament to end their season.

Matta’s first year at the helm was not without its March madness however, as the Buckeyes hosted undefeated and No. 1-ranked Illinois in the regular season finale, and knocked off the Illini 65-64, behind a career-high 25 points from Matt Sylvester, including his 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds left in the game. (Don’t know about you, but the days of Tony Stockman and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham sure seem longer ago than six years.)

2005-06 - Matta led the Buckeyes to their first outright Big Ten championship since 1992, compiling a 23-4 regular season record and a 12-4 conference mark. The top-seeded Buckeyes fell just short of the  Big Ten double when they dropped the final of the conference tournament to Iowa 67-62. Terrence Dials won the Big Ten Player of the Year award, but the big news was Ohio State’s return to the NCAA Tournament after a four-year absence.

Playing as the No.2-seed in the Dayton sub-regional, the Buckeyes got by Davidson in the first round on the strength of a stellar second half performance by Ron Lewis. OSU trailed at the half, but Lewis scored 16 of his 19 points after the break to lead the Bucks to victory. In the days leading up to the tournament, the NCAA had dropped the hammer on OSU for the O’Brien-era violations. Ohio State was required to remove all references to their Final Four trip in 1999 under O’Brien, as well as their three other postseason ventures between 1998-99 and 2001-02, the period when they had used an ineligible player. The OSU program was placed on a three-year probation.

The Buckeyes season ended right there in Dayton two days later in a disappointing 70-52 loss to Georgetown. Roy Hibbert had a big game for the 7th-seeded Hoyas, as Georgetown opened up a quick 20-10 lead, got Dials in early foul trouble, and the Buckeyes never got closer than six points in the second half. As for what might have been....the Hoyas moved on to Minneapolis for the regionals, where they dropped their next game to the eventual champion Florida Gators by a 57-53 score. Ohio State’s shot at the Gators was to be delayed for a year.

Matta_Conley22006-07 - Thad Matta served notice that his Buckeyes were going to be a perennial power in the conference with his second straight outright Big Ten title, this time adding the conference tournament championship to his resume. OSU lost only three regular season games, all of them on the road to Top Ten teams (at #6 North Carolina, at #4 Florida, at #4 Wisconsin), and finished the regular season at 27-3, with a 15-1 conference record.

Matta’s Bucks had a perfect March that year, going 9-0.....(part of a 22-0 streak dating to the Wisconsin loss on Jan.9) before falling to Florida in the NCAA Championship Finals on April 2.

On the way to the title game, the Buckeyes vanquished Central Connecticut St., and then got by Xavier in overtime, after Ron Lewis forced the extra session on a memorable last-second 3-pointer.  Then it was on to San Antonio, where they squeaked by Tennessee and then pulled away to down Memphis 92-76 behind a dominating showing by Greg Oden to reach the Final Four.

Once in Atlanta, the Buckeyes survived Greg Oden’s early foul trouble in the national semis to avenge the previous year’s tournament loss to Georgetown by edging the Hoyas 67-60 behind Michael Conley’s precocious performance. And that loss in the finals to the defending champion Gators looks a little better now that hindsight has proven that Florida group to be the indisputable Team of the Decade. This was arguably Matta’s best March.

2007-08 -  It was to be a down year for Thad Matta, relatively speaking, having lost Greg Oden, Michael Conley and Daequan Cook to the NBA, and Ron Lewis to graduation. The team was led in scoring by Jamar Butler and Kosta Koufos, as this year’s seniors were freshmen at the time, and the light had yet to come on for then-sophomore Evan Turner. The Buckeyes closed the regular season losing six of their last ten, including a four-game losing streak.

Matta did close out a disappointing (10-8) Big Ten season with March wins over No.15 Purdue and No.18 Michigan State, but then fell to the Spartans in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and settled for an NIT bid with a 19-13 regular season record. Matta was able to salvage his season somewhat, as the Buckeyes ripped through the NIT field to win the tournament with five straight victories. The seven point championship game win over Massachusetts was their smallest margin of victory. Matta was 5-2 in March (2-0 in April), but the boast of the NIT Champions...”We’re No. 66”...rang hollow in Columbus, where bigger things are expected of the Buckeyes these days.

Matta_Turner22008-09 - Evan Turner was taking over as the go-to guy for the Buckeyes, but despite a 9-0 start to the season, Ohio State finished a second consecutive campaign with losses in double digits. They dropped six Big Ten road contests, and fell to Illinois and Michigan State on their home floor. Fading down the stretch, Ohio State almost made March moot by losing four of their last five Big Ten games in February.

The Buckeyes rallied with four straight victories, including the first two games of the conference tournament, to bring March in like a lion. Purdue took them down in the tournament final, but the Matta’s worst March indignity was yet to come. At 22-10 overall, and 10-8 in conference play, the Buckeyes were seeded eighth in Dayton for the NCAA first round, and were matched up with the 9-seed Siena Saints. In terms of opening weekend upsets in the NCAA tournament, a No.9 seed beating a No.8 seed is considered small beer. But Ohio State’s double-overtime loss to Siena on a home-state court an hour from their campus served only to magnify Matta’s March missteps.

2009-10 - The Buckeyes lost just two games in the early non-conference schedule, both to ranked teams (UNC, Butler) but then dropped three of their first four Big Ten contests to set up their remarkable run from mid-January on. OSU went 13-1 in conference play from that point to tie with Purdue and Michigan State for the Big Ten title, and went on to win the Big Ten Tournament with an easy finals win over Minnesota.

The conference co-championship earned the Bucks a No.2 seed in the NCAA’s, where they survived a tough shooting night for Evan Turner in their opening round win over 15-seed UC Santa Barbara in Milwaukee. Turner got his act together in the second round with a 24-point performance in OSU’s 75-66 win over 10th-seeded Georgia Tech.

With the No.1 (Kansas), No.3 (Georgetown) and No.4 (Maryland) seeds already eliminated from the supposedly brutal Midwest Regional, Ohio State headed to St. Louis for the Sweet Sixteen round with the national Player of the Year and the favorite’s tag to reach the Final Four once again. Once again though, an underdog would rise up to deny them in March.

Tennessee came up with a terrific overall defensive effort to frustrate Evan Turner and limit the contributions of his Buckeye teammates, as the Vols edged OSU 76-73 to advance to the Elite Eight, where they would eventually fall to Michigan State. Jon Diebler shot 1 for 7 from 3-point range, and William Buford was the only Buckeye to score in double figures besides Turner, who had 22 points.

Matta7Of the 68 teams that qualify for the NCAA’s postseason party, all but one will lose their final game. So far in Thad Matta’s stellar career as head basketball coach at Ohio State, the only thing missing is that final game victory in the NCAA Tournament. Matta’s track record to this point is characterized more often than not by disappointing tournament losses to lesser teams....a March madness of a different sort, you might say. To sum up the postseason record of OSU under Thad Matta:

2004-05 (20-12): no postseason play  
2005-06 (26-6): loss in BTT #2-seed, lost to #7-seed Georgetown in NCAA 2nd Rd.
2006-07 (35-4): won BTT...5-1 in NCAA, as #1-seed, lost to #1-seed Florida in NCAA final.
2007-08 (24-13): lost in BTT final...went 5-0 in NIT, won NIT title.
2008-09 (22-11): lost in BTT #8-seed, lost to #9-seed Siena in NCAA 1st Rd.
2009-10 (29-8): won BTT...2-1 in #2-seed, lost to #6-seed Tennessee in NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

On the upside, Matta has made it to the Big Ten Tournament finals five years in a row, winning it twice. And he has made it to the NCAA tournament four times in his six seasons as OSU coach, including one trip to the Finals. On the downside, in three of those four NCAA appearances, he has been eliminated by a lower-seeded team.

With the Big Ten title already in the trophy case as he faces Wisconsin on Sunday, and the conference tournament coming up next week, Thad Matta would probably have to lose twice without a victory in order to miss out on a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes could weather a loss between now and St. Patrick’s Day and still be well-situated for the tip-off of the Dance.

It’s not the Buckeyes’ next game that Thad Matta most needs to win. This year more than ever, it’s winning his last one that matters.


Loose Leaves

A few random links to Buckeye-related stuff on the web over the last week or so....

Steve Helwagen of Bucknuts caught up with Cam Heyward at the NFL combine.

Check out 11W with their look at OSU draft prospects. As many as nine OSU players could get drafted this April, most of them probably “Day 3 picks”, as the middle to late-rounders are called these days.

I had planned to wrap up the combine performances of OSU’s draft-eligible players, but David’s neat summary this week made that unnecessary.  Looks liike Ross Homan and Dane Sanzenbacher may have helped themselves as much as any of the Buckeyes. Dane stood out in the shuttle drills, where slot receivers show their moves and quickness, and Homan may have alleviated concerns about his lack of ideal size by outperforming all other LB’s in the bench with 32 reps at 225 lbs.

Brandon Castel has a nice rundown on the Buckeyes' combine results over at

Among Thad Matta’s 2011 recruits are two members of the McDonald’s All-American Team (pdf)

Here’s ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg with his combine summary for Big Ten players.

Kudos to Lady Buckeyes’ senior center Jantel Lavender, who was named Big Ten Co-Player of the Year, making her the first men’s or women’s player in conference history to win the award four times.

Some coaches talk the talk...others walk the walk.


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