COLUMBUS – Ohio State has sent 11 teams to the Final Four, and Thad Matta’s done it twice.
While it’s not of the same stature as the Buckeye football team’s place in the pantheon, the basketball program has a history, a tradition and a following to be admired, too.
And in the oddest of places and at the weirdest of times, Matta sees it.
Earlier this season while in Chicago before a game with Northwestern, a restless Matta left his hotel room to take a walk. He ended up in a sandwich shop where soon he saw an elderly couple adorned in Buckeye gear peering in the window at him. They came in the shop and struck up a conversation, telling him they were shocked to see him out in public on a game day.
Being the polite Midwesterner that Matta is, he asked where they were from and what they were doing.
They were from Toledo and the trip to Chicago to see Ohio State play a basketball game was a Christmas gift to themselves, they told him.
“As I’m sitting there when they left, I said, ‘I wonder how many guys on this team would understand what that means.’ It touched me and it made me say, ‘Dammit Thad, you’ve got to win for those two people who paid their money to come watch us play in Chicago,'” he said.
It’s something Matta has tried to impart to his team this season.
“The biggest battle cry they’ve heard from me this year has been playing for one thing and one thing only and that is Ohio State and making sure that we represent this university every time we take the floor,” he said.
Ohio State basketball is bigger than the all-time winningest coach in program history and it’s bigger than any player on the roster
“We have something that we have to represent. I think when we do that, we play pretty good basketball,” Matta said. “Freshman, sophomore, senior, I don’t care what you are, just represent the university.”
Thursday afternoon in Portland, Oregon, the Buckeyes will represent Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight year and ninth time in Matta’s 11-year tenure. Even though they are the lowest seeded team in Ohio State history at No. 10, the Buckeyes are saying the right things before facing seventh-seeded Virginia Commonwealth.
Maybe they are heeding Matta’s message?
“This is the best time of year,” senior forward Sam Thompson said. “This is what we came to Ohio State to do and play in the NCAA Tournament and have the chance to compete in March.”
Added senior guard Shannon Scott: “We’re a 10-seed, but I don’t think any of us care about that. We’re happy to be in the tournament, and we just want to play our best ball from there.”
The seniors were a part of a Final Four squad as freshmen and an Elite Eight team as sophomores, but they were knocked out in their first game against Dayton last season.
Matta sees a different demeanor with the 2014-15 Buckeyes from a year ago.
“These guys were a heck of a lot more excited tonight than they were last year,” the coach said. “You’ve got to have that excitement and that energy when you go into these games because it’s 40 minutes.”
They have to have that excitement and energy because they’re playing for more than themselves. They’re playing for the program and what it represents to so many people.
So will that Chicago encounter make its way into a pregame speech?
“I may save it for the right time,” Matta joked.
Thursday just might be that time.
Rob McCurdy covers Ohio State men’s basketball for the Media Network of Central Ohio and can be reached at email@example.com or 419-521-7241. On Twitter follow @McMotorsport.
Scouting the Rams
• Who: No. 7 Virginia Commonwealth (26-9) vs. No. 10 Ohio State (23-10).
• What: NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament second round game in West Region.
• When: 4:40 p.m. Thursday
• Where: Portland, Oregon, Moda Center (19,980).
• TV: TNT.
• Next: Winner gets either No. 2 Arizona (31-3) or No. 15 Texas Southern (22-12) Saturday.
• The Skinny: VCU coach Shaka Smart, 37, has long ties to Ohio, graduating from Kenyon in 1999 as a magna cum laude and North Coast Athletic Conference Scholar of the Year, then working as an assistant coach at Dayton and Akron … Smart is the assists leader in Kenyon history … The coach is 163-55 in his career at VCU and took the Rams to the 2011 Final Four after starting the tourney in the First Four in Dayton … The Rams shoot a lot of 3-pointers as roughly 40 percent of their attempts are from the arc, and they force a lot of turnovers, averaging 16.4 per game with its presses … They only make 34 percent of their long shots and 42 percent overall so efficiency is an issue … VCU lost 6 of its last 11 regular season games, but won the Atlantic 10 tourney title over Dayton … Treveon Graham is a 6-6 senior guard who averages 16.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, while 6-3 junior guard Melvin Johnson averages 12.4 points … VCU goes 10 deep, but it is not a big team with only two players at 6-8 and everyone else shorter.