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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

OSU Basketball: Thad Matta's Championship Problem

Well, with only a few more weeks left 'til the end of the college football season, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share my thoughts on The Ohio State University men's basketball team. I understand that many of you prefer football to basketball anyway, but I don't care.

So as I was listening to the Buckeye cagers' only exhibition game versus Walsh last night (yeah, it wasn't on TV because the Big Ten Network is so lame they would rather show a rerun of a football game played last weekend) it got me excited about the team's chances this season. Sure, when they play for real a week from tomorrow against Marquette they will look nowhere near the No. 4 team in the nation, but they do have talent.

That got me to thinking, the Buckeyes have had an awful lot of talent come through their program the last few years, but, ultimately, they have come up short in their quest for a national championship. Last season they came oh so close to getting an opportunity to be bested by the Kentucky Wildcats once again, only to fall to the Kansas Jayhawks in the national semifinal.

On the surface, the loss to Kansas can be easily explained, as in the end Ohio State had neither the height nor the depth needed to move on to the national championship game.

But why does Ohio State, seemingly advancing farther in the tournament each season, fall short of the ultimate goal each year?

On the one hand, there are those who would point the finger directly at head coach Thad Matta. They argue Matta's reluctance to play more than five or six guys on any given night leads to tired legs come tournament time. Matta has insisted that until his guys learn to play defense, they won't see the court. Critics then wonder why Deshaun Thomas played so many minutes last season when defense didn't seem to be a word in his vocabulary.

Then there are the Matta apologists, who would point to his overall record, consecutive 20 win seasons,  number of Big Ten Championships, and the fact that he has taken his team to two final four appearances in eight seasons, something more than 75% of all NCAA Division I head coaches cannot claim.

Yet both Mike Krzysewski (sp) and Roy Williams could say the same thing. So what makes them elite coaches? That's right, they both have won multiple national championships.

So we again come to the question, why does Matta's Buckeyes fall short year after year?

Maybe a look at last year's champions, the Kentucky Wildcats, could provide some clues. While personally I can't stand head coach John Calipari( or Cal as he is often referred to) I have to give him credit. Not only did he assemble a group of 19 and 20 year olds that could possibly beat the Charlotte Bobcats, he also got them to believe in the good of the team before individual glory.

That in itself should be considered a coup for Cal, more so especially given the fact Kentucky is assumed to be a one year farm system for the NBA. Coincidentally, folks who believe that UK only recruits athletes with questionable academic backgrounds might be surprised to learn of the story of Brandon Knight, former Wildcat point guard who only played one season for Calipari. I have it on good authority from someone who scouted Knight in high school that he had the grades to play anywhere in the nation. Yet at the end of the day he chose to call Lexington, Kentucky his home for a year. Not that there is anything wrong with UK academically; but it certainly doesn't carry the reputation of a Duke or North Carolina.

But I digress. The point is that Kentucky did not win on talent alone; each team member had to sacrifice a little something of himself along the way.

I think that is a key point because it is why I believe Thad Matta's Buckeyes' do not have a championship. In recent years, Ohio State like Kentucky, has had its share of players who have only stuck around for a season or two before moving along to the NBA. Most of them, like Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jared Sullinger, etc, have bought into the concept of team first.

But I believe Matta's greatest failure to date may be that he cannot convince all of his players to buy into the 'team first' philosophy. Take the example of former Buckeyes center BJ Mullens, for instance. It was clear that Mullens already had one eye on the NBA even before the Big Ten Tournament rolled around during his freshman season. Matta tried to bench him in an effort to convince Mullens he wasn't ready for the pros, but, ultimately, that was a lesson BJ would have to learn on his own.

Going further back, we can also look at the story of Daequan Cook. Part of the 'Thad Five' recruiting class that included Mike Conley, Greg Oden, Dave Lighty, and Othello Hunter, Cook was considered a lottery pick even before lacing them up for the Buckeyes. Cook would see signficant playing time at the beginning of the 2007 season; ultimately Matta relegated him to a reserve role after he realized the Dayton native wasn't going to play ball.

Finally, let's consider the plight of sophomore swing guard Laquinton Ross last season. Ross, who wouldn't join the team until mid season due to academic issues, was touted as one of the top recruits in the nation out of high school. The hype surrounding this kid was almost surreal, with former OSU point guard Scoonie Penn  calling him 'the best Buckeye on the court, hands down.' Naturally, all the press would go to Ross' head, leading him to issue a tweet whining for more playing time. After a conversation with the coach, Ross would delete the tweet, but by then the damage was done. From that point on the only playing time the freshman would see was at the end of a blowout.

All of this behavior would seem more befitting of Kentucky than Ohio State. Yet when the NBA collective bargaining agreement states amateur athletes must spend one year in college before entering the draft, even the Buckeyes can find it hard to avoid such players. Unfortunately for Thad Matta, until he can convince some of these guys that 'the present' is more important than 'their future', a championship may elude Ohio State.

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