Entering Sunday's home contest against the Hoosiers, Matta spent two days stressing defense to his charges – and with good reason. Although the Buckeyes were second in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing an average of 59.5 points per game, teams had been heating up from the floor in recent games.
Dating back to an 82-69 road victory Feb. 6 against Minnesota, the Buckeyes had allowed five straight opponents to shoot better than 50.0 percent from the field. During those games, OSU went 3-2 and suffered its only losses of the season at the hands of Purdue and Wisconsin. Prior to that stretch, only five teams had done so well against the Buckeyes all season.
"We've just been giving up too high of a field-goal percentage," Matta said after the IU game. "We had turned some teams over but I felt like we had to get back to a mind-set of defending."
So it was that Matta looked for some advice.
After the game, freshman point guard Aaron Craft told reporters that the drill was one where four players had to play defense against five offensive players.
"It made us run around," the freshman told The (Columbus) Dispatch. "It worked. I think we played a lot harder tonight. We played well in practice when we just went with four guys, and we had a fifth tonight."
The next day, Matta was mum on the details of the drill.
Pressed for a description, "We made a couple changes to it and I think it helped the drill" was all Matta would offer.
Regardless, it seemed to have paid some dividends. For the game, the Hoosiers went 20 for 52 (38.5 percent) from the field. It was the second-worst performance for an OSU opponent in Big Ten play, narrowly beating Purdue's 38.1 percent effort (24 for 63) in a 23-point Buckeye win Jan. 25.
"That's something we keyed on," OSU senior David Lighty said. "We had to do the basic things like rebounding and playing hard."
Matta pointed out that even though the Buckeyes had dispatched Illinois by 19 points on the previous Tuesday night, the Fighting Illini had gone 28 for 54 (51.9 percent) from the field. The high-water mark for an opponent came Feb. 15, as OSU defeated Michigan State by 10 points but allowed the Spartans to shoot 57.4 percent (27 for 47) from the field.
MSU was undone by committing 19 turnovers. Illinois, meanwhile, had 16. For the season, the Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in conference play in steals per game (6.63) and turnover margin (plus-3.56).
"We gave up some unconventional, easy baskets," the coach said. "(We were) really trying to alleviate those as much as we could knowing that some are going to happen. The big thing for us was just challenging (shots)."
The coach stopped short of questioning his team's effort, however, saying it was more about being more aware on defense and making smarter plays.
Following the win against the Fighting Illini, the Buckeyes had two days off before spending two days preparing for Indiana.
"There was just a high focus on the defensive side of it," Matta said.
The question, however, is how much the success was what OSU was doing defensively and how much it was the result of Indiana's 3-13 conference record. Following the loss to the Buckeyes, the Hoosiers sat ninth in conference play with a shooting percentage of 43.8 percent.
However, IU had shot worse than that only six times this season. Ironically, its foe received advice from the man responsible for helping create a high-level rivalry between the two teams for more than two decades.
Matta said the conversation with Knight was not an isolated incident.
"I've spoken with Coach Knight quite a bit just over time," he said. "We talked about more than defense, just coaching philosophies and different things. I grew up idolizing him as a coach. The one thing I've found about him is he's a man who is truly passionate about the game of basketball and it being played the right way. It's great to have him as an alum of the university."
And now as an advisor, apparently.