COLUMBUS, Ohio – A team made up of many former Thad Matta players will take the court Saturday afternoon as part of The Basketball Tournament in Peoria (Ill.) but before they left the Ohio State campus, we had a chance to talk to them about the changes in the basketball program that ultimately led to the departure of their former head coach.
The removal of Matta as head coach came suddenly and surprisingly to many of his former star players. Many of these players remain close to the university despite playing professional basketball across the globe as the reach of the game covers all corners of the planet.
"We had a great time with Thad, some of the best years of my life," William Buford said. "It is really unfortunate what happened to him. We all had a lot of love for coach, he was like a father figure to a lot of us. It was just sad to see things that went down but we met the new guys and I think they are changing it around here."
Matta led the Buckeyes to the NCAA Tournament nine times and to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond five times, including a four-year run that encompassed the careers of many of the players who are taking part in the TBT.
But for the players the wins were great, but the relationship that they had with their coaches helped shape their lives beyond college.
"Coach Matta was more than just a coach for a lot of us," Dallas Lauderdale said. "He was a friend, he was a mentor, he was a guy that we learned a lot from. Obviously when you sort of have grown up with somebody like that and he is gone so quickly, it happened so fast, it hits you and takes you by surprise. You keep moving forward."
The last two seasons under Matta were not representative of what he had accomplished throughout the rest of his coaching career. As some fans grew restless with the on-the-court product of the team, Matta's legacy took a hit in the eyes of some. His former players hope that their coach will be remembered for the entire body of work.
"It is really easy to let what is going on right now overshadow all of the great things that he was able accomplish and build here," Aaron Craft said. "I don’t think of us players are the men that we are without him and it was just tough to feel for him but also the other coaches as well."
Few people really understood the physical ailments that Matta suffered toward the end of his coaching run at Ohio State. But some of his players believe that there was a lot more going on as well and that maybe the culture in the locker room was not where it needed to be or where it was during their time in the Scarlet and Gray.
"The lack of discipline. There is only so far and so much you can do going through what coach Matta went through," Jared Sullinger said. "You had a couple of bad apples. I think now that you move some of the bad apples out of here, now we can move forward and be the team that we were supposed to be."
The former players have had a chance to meet with new head coach Chris Holtmann and the rest of the staff and have all come away impressed. While they all will hold their former coach in the highest regard, they know that Holtmann has a great plan in place for the program that means so much to them.
"He is a no-nonsense type of guy and he is trying to change this program around to what he wants it to be," Sullinger added. "That is no knock to coach Matta, but he wants to make it what he wants it to be because it is his first time being at Ohio State and he wants to make his own impression."
The hope is for the Buckeyes to get back to the top of the Big Ten and a perennial Sweet Sixteen kind of team. Is that realistic?
"This can definitely be a top-5 program," Jon Diebler said. "I think coach Matta did that when he was here. That is why coach Matta is the best. What he did for this program in unmatched. The way he did it and the joy that he brought and the guys he brought in, we took pride playing at Ohio State and this is a special place now."
It won't be an overnight fix but the former players believe that Holtmann has already made some positive moves for the long-term success of the program and that the Buckeyes won't be down for long.
"I think that he has hired some great people around him and looking to get the program back to where it once was," Lauderdale added.