COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Thad Matta has coached two Ohio State teams to Big Ten championships in his five full seasons on campus.
The one closest to his heart might not be the one you’d think.
The 2006-2007 squad with one-then-done, first-round NBA picks Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook that made it to the NCAA championship game? Wrong.
Rather, it was his team the year before, which featured a motley collection of role players that found a way to go 26-6.
“That team my second year here might have been my all-time favorite team,” Matta said Tuesday. “Just from where they were projected and what they were able to get accomplished.”
There are parallels between that team, which featured Big Ten MVP Terence Dials, and the current Buckeyes (16-6, 6-3), who have made a remarkable turnaround.
Even before the 2005-2006 season got started, everyone was talking about the recruiting bumper crop coming in the next season, which included the 7-foot Oden and the rest. Almost no one paid any attention to that year’s team.
“(They) had a little bit of an ax to grind and something to prove,” Matta said.
Already people are talking about Matta’s glittering recruiting class coming in next season, which includes Ohio Mr. Basketball Jared Sullinger (J.J.’s little, 6-foot-9 brother) and 6-7 J.D. Weatherspoon from the nation’s No. 1 ranked team, Columbus Northland High School, along with Indiana scoring machine Deshaun Thomas (averaging more than 30 points a game). Maybe this year’s Buckeyes feel similarly slighted.
They already have overcome a lot. They lost three of their first four Big Ten games and were trying to figure out their roles after losing standout Evan Turner for more than a month.
Now they have won five conference games in a row, have climbed to No. 13 in The Associated Press poll three weeks after not getting a single vote and suddenly find themselves tied for second in the conference.
“In the toughness department, I think this team is probably more efficient than that team was offensively,” said Matta, who made it clear that the team four years ago might have had more of an edge but less talent.
Turner, getting some attention as a possible national player of the year, missed 4 1/2 weeks with two broken bones in his lower back. It took time after he returned on Jan. 6 for the Buckeyes to get a feel for who they are and what they needed to do. Since then, they have been fast learners.
The Buckeyes haven’t given up on winning a conference title, even though they trail Big Ten leader Michigan State by three games heading into the second half of the league schedule.
“That’s what we talked about at the beginning of the season; that’s what we want to do,” said starting forward David Lighty, the only current Buckeye who played on the NCAA runner-up three years ago. “There’s not too many of us on the team with a ring. Like Evan preached before the season started, we don’t want to come to Ohio State and leave without leaving our mark, with someone saying, ‘They were a pretty good team but really, what did they do?”’
Ohio State plays second-division Big Ten teams with a combined conference record of 5-21 in its next three games. If the Buckeyes continue to play the way they have, they should be close to Matta’s 10th 20-win season in his 10 years as a head coach at Butler, Xavier and OSU.
Penn State, which the Buckeyes welcome on Wednesday night, is the hard-luck story of the conference this season. Despite the efforts of elite shooting guard Talor Battle, the Nittany Lions (8-13, 0-9) have lost at Illinois by a point, at Minnesota by five, at Iowa by three and against Wisconsin in overtime. In each of those games, the Nittany Lions led late.
The Buckeyes, who are 13-0 at home—where they are shooting 54 percent from the field—have noted how Penn State has had teams on the ropes.
“We can’t take them lightly,” said big man Dallas Lauderdale, who is 39 of 47 (82.9 percent) from the field at Value City Arena. “We can’t take any possessions off.”
Because a tough team wouldn’t.