Thad Matta may never have gotten the chance to lead Ohio State to last season’s national championship game if it weren’t for the opportunity he was given at Butler seven years ago. One of his assistants back then was Brad Stevens.
Matta returns to Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time since he was Butler’s coach when the Buckeyes visit Stevens’ 16th-ranked Bulldogs on Saturday.
The 40-year-old Matta is a Butler alum who coached the Bulldogs to one of the program’s most successful seasons in 2000-01. Butler went 24-8 and lost to eventual Final Four participant Arizona in the second round of the NCAA tournament before Matta left to coach Xavier.
In his lone season at Butler—his first as a collegiate head coach—Matta hired Stevens as his director of basketball operations. Stevens spent six seasons as an assistant with the Bulldogs and elevated to head coach before this season due to the departure of Todd Lickliter to Iowa, becoming the third-youngest coach in Division I at the age of 31.
While Matta has developed into one of the top coaches in the country, Stevens has taken advantage of a senior-laden team at Butler by winning his first six games. His five senior starters helped the Bulldogs capture the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving weekend.
Butler set a tournament record by making 47 3-pointers in the three games, including 16-of-24 in an 81-71 win over Texas Tech last Saturday in the championship game.
“Sixteen for 24 probably sums it up. I’d like to say we hit timely shots but I think that probably sums it up,” Stevens said.
The Bulldogs do not have a player taller than 6-foot-8 on their roster, but leading scorer A.J. Graves and forward Pete Campbell are each shooting better than 51 percent on 3-pointers. Campbell made 17 3s in Alaska and Graves added 15 in the three games.
“We’re not a very big team so we’ve got to use our strengths. Our strengths are playing motion basketball, penetrating, kicking, setting screens and just being patient and looking for the open shot,” Graves said. “More times than not, when we run it around, it’s just coincidence, to be honest, that we just get a lot of 3s.”
The undersized Bulldogs will have to figure out a way to defend 7-foot center Kosta Koufos, who leads Ohio State with 16.2 points per game. The freshman, however, comes off a rough effort Wednesday when he had four points on 1-of-10 shooting in a 66-55 loss to No. 1 North Carolina.
“Kosta was up against Tyler Hansbrough who is probably the best post player in the country,” Matta said. “It is one of those games he just has to learn from; all of our players do.”
Koufos was held to 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting in Ohio State’s only other loss.
Besides mediocre games from Koufos, the Buckeyes (4-2) also have had shooting problems in the second half in both of their losses. They missed 17 straight shots on Wednesday after missing 17 of their first 18 after the break in a 70-47 loss to then-No. 16 Texas A&M on Nov. 23.
“It was deja vu from last Friday night, that second-half shooting,” Matta said. “The ball just would not go in the basket.”
Ohio State has won 30 of 38 meetings with Butler, including a 79-69 overtime win on Nov. 22, 2005 in the last meeting. Graves, one of two current Bulldogs to play in that game, scored 13 points and made a 3-pointer with 6 seconds left to force overtime.
Jamar Butler is one of two remaining Buckeyes to play in that contest and had 16 points off the bench. He’s averaging 15.8 points and a team-high 5.0 assists this season.