COLUMBUS – June 5 was a tough day for Ohio State basketball alumni like William Buford, Aaron Craft and Dallas Lauderdale.
That was the day when it was announced Thad Matta would no longer be the Buckeyes’ coach – effective immediately – after 13 seasons at the helm.
While some saw the writing on the wall for Matta after last season, when the Buckeyes went 17-15 and failed to make even the NIT, it came as a surprise to his former players.
"Once it happened, everybody was just shocked," Buford said. "We didn’t think that was going to happen."
To the seven former Buckeyes who were in Columbus on Thursday preparing to play in The Basketball Tournament this weekend, Matta remains beloved, so it was hard to see the school they love and the coach they love part ways.
"It was tougher on me than I thought it was going to be," Craft said. "It’s easy to take for granted all the stuff that he did for myself, for every other player that he’s had and obviously the university and the program. I don’t think any of us are the players and the men we are without him."
All seven of those players – Buford, Craft, Lauderdale, Jon Diebler, David Lighty, Evan Ravenel and Jared Sullinger – were a part of the 2010-11 Ohio State team, arguably Matta’s best team, that went 34-3 but lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Lighty was on the 2006-07 team that went all the way to the national championship game. Buford, Craft, Sullinger and Ravenel were on the 2011-12 team that went to the Final Four. Diebler and Lauderdale never made it past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, but they were with Lighty on the 2007-08 team that won the NIT.
All of those players have fond memories of Matta’s glory years, and they still speak highly of their former coach to this day.
"I think what he did for this program is unmatched," Diebler said. "You can ask any former player, what Coach Matta meant to us, it goes beyond basketball. He took care of us, he prepared us for life outside of basketball, just life outside of college, so I know we’re all grateful for him."
It would be understandable, therefore, if they were disappointed or bitter that Matta is no longer Ohio State’s coach. All of them, though, say they like what they have seen so far from Chris Holtmann and the rest of Ohio State’s new coaching staff.
"We’ve all got to meet the new coaches," Diebler said. "They’re great guys, I think they’re really hungry and I think they’re doing a great job so far, so we’re confident that they can get things rolling again."
In his first month on the job, Holtmann has made an evident effort to connect with the Buckeyes players of coaches past, both through social media and on-campus interactions.
Amazing turnout of former Buckeyes for a meet-and-greet with Coach Holtmann & Staff! pic.twitter.com/lzNDU3s7vO
— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) July 10, 2017
The seven former Buckeyes who practiced inside the current Buckeyes’ practice gym on Thursday said they still feel as welcome at Ohio State as they ever have.
"They like us being here," Craft said. "I know we were all kind of worried about that a little bit, but they’ve been great."
Lauderdale said Holtmann has "gone over and above" to make sure the former Buckeyes feel they still have a place in the program.
"He’s said numerous times, we have an open door, whatever we want to do," Lauderdale said. "Whether it’s this kind of stuff (playing basketball in Ohio State’s facilities) or weight room or just going ahead and talking to him, getting to know him, whatever we want to do, and I think that’s awesome."
Lighty says the new coaches haven’t hesitated to talk to Matta’s former players and ask them questions when they have been on campus.
"Just being around and working out around here, they come and talk to us and pick our brains and see our input on things and how we can help the team or they can help the team and just everything about Columbus, since they’re just coming in," Lighty said.
Matta’s former players praise him for the culture he created both on and off the court at Ohio State. They acknowledge, though, that change could be a good thing at this time for the Buckeyes.
Buford and Ravenel described the new coaches, who also include former Butler assistants Ryan Pedon, Mike Schrage and Terry Johnson, as genuine. Lighty and Diebler described them as eager, while Craft said the coaching staff "seems very excited."
Sullinger sees Holtmann bringing a harder edge to the program, describing him as a "no-nonsense type of guy."
"He’s trying to change this program around to what he wants it to be," Sullinger said. "And that’s no knock to Coach Matta. But he wants to make it into what he wants it to be because this is his first time being at Ohio State, he wants to make his own impression."
So far, that first impression has been a good one on the Buckeyes who played for Matta.
"Coming in, as a former player, you don’t know," Lauderdale said. "You don’t know if the coach may come in with some bravado, like 'Yo, this is my program now,' but he hasn’t done that, and so I’m very appreciative for that. I think he’s a great guy and he’s hired great coaches around him, and so we’ll see what happens."