The Ohio State basketball suffered a span in mid-February where it lost three of four games, including an embarrassing 71-49 loss at Wisconsin. The Buckeyes, however, have since bounced back to win four-straight games - including one at No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday – to give new life to a season many had already given up on.
When Thad Matta took the Ohio State job in 2004, he didn’t have to formulate his own vision for what he one day hoped his program would resemble.
He just looked at Michigan State.
“How do they do that?” Matta asked himself when looking at the program Tom Izzo built. “The biggest tell-all is standing the test of time in college basketball. It’s a lot easier said than done.”
Now immersed in what he said is one of the most challenging coaching jobs he has faced during his nine seasons at Ohio State, Matta is trying to guide the Buckeyes to a season that measures up to the standard he has built during the course of his previous eight seasons in Columbus.
Perhaps that’s why Matta was reluctant to overthink the latest milestone he reached with a 68-60 win over then No. 4 Michigan State on Feb. 24. It marked his 13th season in as many years as a head coach during which he had guided his team to at least 20 wins.
“I haven’t really thought about that,” said Matta, who is only one year behind Gonzaga head coach Mark Few for the current record for most consecutive 20- win seasons to start a head coaching career. “I have always said this. I have been extremely fortunate with the places that I’ve coached and the players that I’ve had in terms of capability of winning.”
Don’t expect Matta to come up for air and reflect on his already impressive résumé at Ohio State, one that suggests he is already well on his way to matching what Izzo has done at Michigan State in terms of longevity.
That’s because Matta is trying to make the 2012-13 season the latest campaign that is added to the following list of accomplishments – Ohio State has earned or shared five Big Ten championships, including the last three in a row, has played in six Big Ten tournament championship games, advanced to the Final Four twice, played for a national championship and won an NIT title.
“If you look at his five Big Ten championships, three or four of them were with completely different types of teams,” OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals told BSB. “That in and of itself is pretty amazing when you think about it.
“The consistency of winning 20 games a year for as long as he has, I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country. The one thing he doesn’t have is a national championship, but he’s played for one and has been to two Final Fours, and I think we still have that as our ultimate goal this year.”
That goal would have seemed absurd in mid-February, a time where the Buckeyes lost three of four games and were embarrassed in a 71-49 blowout loss at Wisconsin, a game that dropped the Buckeyes into fifth place in the Big Ten standings and seemed to end the team’s chances at earning at least a share of its fourth consecutive league title.
The game also stood out as a breaking point for many of Ohio State’s followers, serving as a confirmation to them that this year’s team might be too flawed to compete at the level the Buckeyes have in the recent past.
It was at Ohio State’s darkest time of the season when it was hard to remember what Matta has already accomplished. It was even harder to project this season could eventually go down as one of the head coach’s most efficient jobs.
So it wasn’t out of the question for Lenzelle Smith Jr. to wonder if Matta has earned enough credit for the job he has already done.
“Honestly, I would say no,” the junior guard said. “This season has been really tough for us, and whenever we have a tough season like this, I think a lot of the fans and critics point to him.
“In reality, it has nothing to do with him. He’s constantly asking us this year what he needs to do for us to play better for us to win. But at the end of the day, it’s on us. We’re the ones out there. We’ve got to put the ball in the bucket. He can’t do it for us.”
Fast-forward to March 5, and the No. 14 Buckeyes looked like an entirely different team after knocking off No. 2 Indiana 67-58 in Assembly Hall. It was Ohio State’s fourth-straight win since the Wisconsin game, a streak that has kept what once were dead Big Ten title aspirations alive.
But it also served as visual proof of what Matta has been trying to convey all season – when the Buckeyes come together, they can beat anyone in the country.
“That was our best overall game we’ve played all season,” junior Sam Thompson told BSB. “What we’ve been trying to put together all season came together (against Indiana), and I think it is exciting that we’re starting to play to our potential.”
In other words, Matta’s plan is perfectly on schedule.
The Buckeyes may not win a piece of their fourth consecutive Big Ten title – Indiana wins it outright if it beats No. 7 Michigan on Sunday – but OSU is starting to play its best basketball in the month of March.
And if the Buckeyes don't earn a piece of the conference crown, the team is confident that Matta can do something only Izzo has in the last 10 years – lead a team that didn't win the Big Ten to the Final Four.
“Coach Matta is a great coach and he’s obviously had some great players of the years, but it is just the way he gets the most out of his guys and the most out of his teams,” sophomore forward Sam Thompson said. “He brings guys together from all around the country to really play as one unit, so it is just a testament to his ability to build teams and it has shown with his 13 20-win seasons.”
That means nearly a decade into the job, Matta has done the thing he said he’s always set out to accomplish. He has passed the test of time.