The last time Thad Matta guided an Ohio State basketball team to the Final Four, he learned a valuable lesson that stuck with him.
This time, when his squad invades New Orleans this weekend to face Kansas University at 7:49 p.m. Saturday, Matta vows to take five minutes to look around and enjoy what he and the Buckeyes (31-7) have accomplished.
“I’m excited,” said Matta, whose OSU squad lost to Florida in the national title game in 2007. “I think six years ago, I probably didn’t enjoy the moment as much as I wanted to or needed to. But truth be told, I probably won’t enjoy this one, either. We’ll get down there and try to play our best basketball.”
Although his team entered the preseason ranked in the top five, Matta said during a Monday teleconference of the four coaches in this year’s Final Four that he knew his team had a “long, long way to go.”
Reaching New Orleans always was the goal, but there were stretches during the season when many outside the program began to doubt whether that was possible. The Buckeyes opened the season by winning eight straight, a run that propelled them to No. 2 in the national polls. But then came a loss at No. 13 Kansas in which the Buckeyes played without big man Jared Sullinger, and their unbeaten streak was over.
OSU won 13 of its next 15 games — losing at Indiana and at Illinois — before encountering a nightmarish stretch in February in which the Buckeyes lost three of five Big Ten games, including two at home. Although the tough losses hit the Buckeyes hard, Matta made sure to emphasize that his team’s late-season rough patch may be responsible for his team standing where it stands today.
“I don’t know if I could be prouder of a basketball team in terms of everything that they’ve been through,” Matta said. “We never lost two games in a row. And if you look at the losses we had this year, hard-fought games. I think the thing that makes me the most proud is these guys kept getting better.”
Added Sullinger, who Monday joined KU’s Thomas Robinson in being named an All-American by the Associated Press: “I appreciated that everyone doubted this basketball team. I want to thank y’all because, through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that.”
That much was obvious by the way Ohio State finished the pre-NCAA Tournament portion of its season. First the Buckeyes crushed Purdue and Michigan en route to a match-up with Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament title game. The Buckeyes lost that game, 68-64, but took a lot of confidence away from it and into the East Regional, where, seeded second, they knocked off top-seeded Syracuse, 77-70, Saturday to advance to the Final Four.
OSU won its four tourney games by an average of 12 points per game, including back-to-back victories over Big East squads Cincinnati and Syracuse. With a trip to the Big Easy next up on the schedule, Matta said he would emphasize having fun along the way.
“Well, I think New Orleans is a celebration-type town,” he said. “So we’re just going to keep rolling right in there. I’ve been a head coach (at OSU) now for 12 years, and the one thing I’ve always tried to do was enjoy the special moments. We’re going to enjoy (this). I think taking the time to celebrate is something that they deserve.”