LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. glanced at one another and smiled, clearly intrigued by the question.
If coach Thad Matta hadn’t left Xavier for Ohio State three years ago, was there a chance the dynamic freshman duo might have wound up playing for the Musketeers instead of helping the Buckeyes become a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament?
Oden and Conley agreed Friday that it could have happened.
“He’s a great coach and a great guy,” said Oden, who faces his coach’s former team Saturday in the second round of the South Regional. “He was really the first thing that got me attracted to Ohio State, so if he was there it could have been a possibility.”
Conley recalled Matta, while in the midst of a successful stint at Xavier, being one of the first coaches to contact the players early in their careers at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis.
“It was a definite option back then because of the kind of person and coach he was,” the Buckeyes’ point guard said. “If he hadn’t moved, it could have turned out a little different.”
Well, so much for what might have been.
Matta did leave Xavier in July 2004, just days after saying he had no interest in the Buckeyes job. He tried to play down the significance of facing his old team in the second round, but his friendship with his Xavier successor, Sean Miller, and the circumstances surrounding his departure are a natural story line.
“I think that’s a sad approach to the game. I think you’re taking away from the kids, which amazes me,” Matta said. “Xavier is a tremendous basketball team. They’ve had a great season. I think we’re a very good basketball team and we’ve had a great season. The fact that we’re meeting, it’s another game.”
Musketeers fans certainly don’t think so. Many of them booed the Ohio State coach when he ducked into Rupp Arena to catch a portion of Xavier’s first-round victory over Brigham Young on Thursday night.
Xavier has a strong NCAA tradition, and Matta was very much a part of it, leading the Musketeers beyond the first round of the tourney each of his three seasons there. He moved to Ohio State a few months after guiding a surprising run to the round of eight.
Xavier’s three senior starters—Justin Cage, Justin Doellman and Brandon Cole—were contributors on that team. They’re excited to be facing Ohio State, but insisted it’s not an opportunity to get the coach who bolted after their freshman year.
“He’s moved on and we have as well,” Cage said. “There is no animosity.”
To upset the top-seeded Buckeyes (31-3), Miller said his Musketeers (25-8) will have to play a perfect game.
The Xavier coach described Matta as one of his “best friends in life,” adding he was disappointed by the reception fans gave his former boss.
Matta and Miller once shared a small office as assistants at Miami of Ohio, and Miller served as associate head coach under his friend at Xavier.
“I really believe he has a fondness in his heart for Xavier. If it wasn’t for the great run we had, this situation probably wouldn’t be a reality. I know a lot of our players think the world of him, and I know he roots for us and pulls for us,” Miller said.
“The great part about Xavier is we have a history that goes beyond any coach. Bob Staak, Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta and hopefully I can continue it on. It’s that 25 years of winning that makes Xavier so special, not one singular coach or moment.”
Matta said the night before Ohio State was set to announce his hiring, he actually called then-Buckeyes athletic director Andy Geiger to withdraw. He changed his mind again during the conversation, and has no regrets about taking the job.
The way he sees it, the move has worked out for both schools.
Ohio State is riding an 18-game winning streak, and Xavier is in the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in seven years.
“The great thing is when I left Xavier I knew they were in great hands. I knew that Sean was going to get the job,” Matta said. “I felt that that program, we made it better than it was when we got there. And as long as Sean was taking over, I felt great.”
He’s even cool with the way Xavier fans reacted Thursday night.
“They used to boo me when I coached there,” Matta said. “So I was very accustomed to it.”