From Overrated to Undervalued, It's Been a Rollercoaster Season for Buckeyes

By Kyle Rowland on March 11, 2013 at 10:00a

Two seconds and a wrong turn are all that stood between Ohio State and another conference championship – its fourth consecutive – but it was not to be. The irony, of course, is that Michigan’s final-minute meltdown against Indiana cost the Buckeyes their title. 

The Buckeyes. Ohio State was a team all season, not individuals. 

The lack of a Big Ten championship, however, does not diminish the season Ohio State had.

There were lofty expectations when the preseason polls revealed Ohio State was ranked fourth. Losing a two-time All-American in Jared Sullinger and the program’s third-leading scorer of all-time, William Buford, didn’t lessen the season outlook.

“Year to year the people change, but the expectation is to get back to Atlanta and win two more games,” said point guard Aaron Craft – in October.

The national perception, though, was that Ohio State was overrated, not in a demeaning way, but rather in a literal sense. Highs and lows followed over the course of the season. Then came Feb. 17, when the Buckeyes suffered one of its worst losses in recent memory, a 71-49 mauling at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers. It was the third loss in a four-game spiral.

Ohio State stood at 8-5 in the Big Ten, visions of a conference title long gone. With a once-promising season at a crossroads, a funny thing happened. Ohio State won the rest of its games, beating two top-five opponents in the process – Michigan State and Indiana

The Buckeyes are the only Big Ten team to beat all 11 conference opponents.

“We have a nice little streak going on here,” said Ohio State’s lone senior, Evan Ravenel, after the Buckeyes’ Senior Day triumph over Illinois

To some, a 23-7 overall record and 13-5 conference ledger might not be eye-opening. But this has been perhaps the best coaching job in Thad Matta’s nine years at Ohio State. The 2005-06 Big Ten champions also stick out, though that was an overachieving group that entered the season with no expectations.

Following up Final Four seasons is one of the toughest jobs in the sport. That’s why you rarely see teams make return appearances the next year. 

“The first time we went to Final Four, the next year was one of the most challenging years of coaching I ever had,” Matta said. “We had a young team and we had guys that just thought because they showed up things were going to happen for them.”

Calm, cool and collected.The coaching staff could have panicked, but did not. 

They missed the NCAA Tournament. Embarrassed and humbled, the Buckeyes won the NIT, but it was little consolation. This season, Matta took a team that had no identity and molded it into a selfless bunch that does all the little things. 

Well into the mad month of March, few teams are as hot as the Buckeyes. After all, that’s what Matta’s teams do – get better as the season rolls along. Their five consecutive games on the plus side represent the longest current win streak in the Big Ten.

“I always say 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.”

For the first two months of the season, all anyone wanted to talk about was Ohio State’s offensive deficiency. Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, was holding up to his end of the bargain, but his teammates left him stranded on an island.

Instead of having someone to help complement his scoring, Ohio State just needed a balanced team game. That type of production has followed ever since the mid-February swoon.

“I love the fact that they kept working, kept practicing, kept the energy, kept the focus,” Matta said. “I like where we are now. You just finished the regular season, with everything that transpired in college basketball, with five straight wins.”

Said Craft: “Instead of falling apart, we did a great job of coming together and believing in the system and our coaches and one another.”

Ohio State is the No. 2 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago. The Buckeyes will play at 6:30 on Friday night against the winner of Purdue-Nebraska.

Yes, the same team that was written off multiple times, most recently three weeks ago, is the second seed in the best conference in the country. And there’s no stopping now. Denied a regular-season crown, Ohio State heads west to Chicago with only one thing on its mind – championship.

“You’ve got the taste of winning in your mouth and you want to keep it there,” Ravenel said. “You want to keep playing and keep winning.”

Stopping to ponder not only the previous weeks, but also the entire season, Matta was at a loss for words.

“I’m so damn tired, I can’t answer that question,” he said.

Rest up. March is only beginning.


Comments Show All Comments

AndyVance's picture

As someone who has criticized Matta plenty (and fairly, I think) over the years, I have to hand it to him this season - the growth of this team over the past two months has been extraordinary. Do I think they're a Final Four team yet? Maybe. This weekend will tell us a lot more.
Regardless, my hat's off to Coach Matta for the yeoman's work in bringing these kids back from the brink. On the other hand, this line:

The irony, of course, is that Michigan’s final-minute meltdown against Indiana cost the Buckeyes their title. 

...overlooks the fact that what cost the Buckeyes the title was actually the loss at Illinois, or vs. Indiana (the first time), or at M*ch*g*n. We can't lay the blame at TTUN when we didn't take care of business in those earlier games.

slippy's picture

I wish more people shared this sentiment on the last part.  Michigan had nothing to do with our title.  Getting smoked by Wisconsin and Illinois is what cost us our title.

Oakland Buckeye's picture

Andy - would strongly disagree with the plenty & fairly" ciriticisms of Matta - You are a top poster on this site, but I really struggle with the constant Matta detractors. We all seem to have forgotten where this program came from & Thad has brought it to national prominence after a long also ran slot in the Big 10. My concern on this site & others is heavy criticism from those who lack coaching experience will run off one of the best things that has ever happened to our program. Thad is not just a recruiter, but has coached semi- talented teams deep in the tourney everywhere he has been.
I can see urbz losing one game & the same ilk will call for his head. Great Job Thad! ALL YEAR! Glad you are our coach!

AndyVance's picture

In my own (admittedly self-serving) defense, I have written two lengthy appraisals of Matta's record in compassion to other legendary coaches and other currently-active top-tier play callers, both of which reported favorably on Matta's performance. You may want to read those before assuming I'm among the "fire Matta" crazies...
That said, it is fair to criticize the Coach when it's warranted; I simply wanted to state that it's important to give credit when it's due, especially when one is known as a regular critic.
Ad a final aside, I don't think many of us have forgotten where we've come from in regards to roundball, but I do think we tend to underplay Jim O'Brien's successes at Ohio State. He was worlds better than his immediate predecessors (though obviously still well off the blistering pace set by Coach Matta).

tennbuckeye19's picture

O'Brien had a four year run from 1998-1999 to 2001-2002 that was fantastic, 2 1st place finishes and 2nd place and a 3rd place finish in that span. I've never been one to downplay his success, but I think he actually over-achived in those 4 years. The 1999 Final Four was a pretty remarkable for OSU in O'Brien's 2nd year. They were coming off a 1-15 B1G season the year. 
My biggest gripe with O'Brien was his approach to recruiting.

AndyVance's picture

Right on the money re: recruiting, Tenn. I've often said that O'Brien's strengths and Matta's are almost two sides of the same coin... O'Brien was a medicore recruiter and an excellent developer/Xs & Os guy. It seemed like he got every last drop of potential out of the middling recruits he brought to town.
On the other hand Matta is an exceptional recruiter who, to many of us, sometimes fails to get that same level of performance out of the available potential. (Before the boo-birds start on me, obviously I just said above that this year he obviously coached this team back from the brink, and I've said he deserves every accolade, so don't start raining hate down upon me.)
My ideal would be if Jim O and Coach Matta has a hypothetical coaching baby - Matta's recruiting with O'Brien's work off the bench. I think we may have actually started to see that in the final five games of this season, truth be told.

JeffCoBuck's picture

I thought they were overrated (read: over ranked) too at the beginning of the year, and I thought it was unfair to them.  Losing two really good offensive presences was going to take some time to adjust to.  It took until the end of January, but they are obviously figuring it out.  They are peaking at the right time, and I love it.

zbd's picture

Matta has finally played some non-starters. Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams have contributed. Getting game-time rest for starters is critical. Getting blown out losses at Illinois, Wisc and Indiana  woke the team up that desire and effort was required to win.

BuddhaBuck's picture

The Craft-Scott defensive combo is piranha like. Coach Coombs would be proud.

Don't text while driving.

Hovenaut's picture

This team had to grow into its own, and I think they're finally finding their way. Matta has done a good job in guiding this group, and they look good at precisely the right time of year.

I expect an exciting next few weeks, and no matter the finish I'm about as proud of this squad as any under Matta.

FLBuckeye's picture

After that Wisconsin game I thought for sure this team was looking at an 8 or a 9 seed by the season's end. Now we have a very good shot at a 2 seed. I'm now looking forward to these upcoming weeks much, much more than I thought I would be. 

German Buckeye's picture

Only thing I'm disappointed about this season is why does Thad still give minutes to Williams.  No one can convince me that McDonald couldn't do better, at least in rebounds and some put back points.  At 6'11 too many times Williams line read 11 minutes, 0 rebounds, 0 points, and a couple blocks.  Just play the "small" rotation - would rather see Craft, Scott, Diesel, Thompson and Ravenel with Smith, Ross and McDonald getting the majority of sub minutes. 

Citrus's picture

This team is peaking at the right time. They are less talented then last year but there is no "Kentucky" this year. The Buckeyes have been competitive in every big game. They have better than a puncher's chance in the tournament. Should be fun.

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

My frustration with most of those who critique Matta is that it's usually done through a football lens where losing one game means the end of your championship dreams. That's not the case in hoops. Others lose sight of the fact that OSU has very little basketball tradition. We are not the blue blood in hoops that we are in football. So Thad is really building on 40 years of what was mostly mediocre -- occasionally better, and often far less than mediocre.
Does that mean he is perfect? No way. I, for one, wish he would press or trap teams who want to limit the number of possessions so they can't dictate the pace of play. On the other hand, I think we've seen that the bit about the bench is really a canard. Matta plays the bench when players deserve minutes (his attempts to squeeze some quality play out of Amir Williams notwithstanding).
I think what this, and every season in his run, has shown is that OSU has one of the best coaches around today and that some fans won't realize it until he leaves, retires, or is fired.