The Buckeyes – perhaps the best team in college basketball a year ago – still had so much to learn. But in an instant the sudden and harsh reality of March Madness set in for the Matta.
There was no more time for a lesson to be taught. The season was over.
"Nobody likes to lose more than we do," said Matta moments after this year's Buckeyes knocked off Nebraska in dominating fashion on Jan. 3, alluding to the importance of growing from mistakes. "It's like I told our guys, last year, I think we learned great lessons in the Kentucky game but the season was over."
Matta stresses the importance of learning from mistakes after every game, win or lose, but those pivotal lessons that ultimately culminate in steady growth are potentially easier to grasp when the team pays the biggest price in the form of a loss.
"Any time you lose a game you have a heightened awareness," Matta said. "There is a little sense of – I don't want to say urgency because we always try to operate with a sense of urgency win or lose here – but (awareness of what can be done better)."
Last year's team didn't suffer many losses – two during the regular season – and when the Buckeyes lost its third and final game of the year, there was no coming back from that.
While there's no telling whether the lack of adversity last year's Buckeyes faced during the regular season had an impact on the resiliency of a team widely considered to have underachieved in the postseason, Matta isn't going to take any loss lightly this year.
The No. 6 Buckeyes had already fallen twice before 2012, matching last year's regular season total. The second of the blemishes, a 74-70 loss at Indiana New Year's Eve, wasn't received well by the head coach.
"Not very nice," sophomore big man Jared Sullinger responded when asked to describe Matta's demeanor in practice in the days after the Buckeyes' trip to Bloomington. "But we kind of needed that. We gave up that game against Indiana. I'm not taking anything away from Indiana, but when we watched film realized that wasn't us. He wasn't very polite and that's what we needed to put fire back in our bellies."
Vigorous practices and a less than enthusiastic Matta was what followed the Indiana loss, as the head coach drove his message home about what needs to do to be successful in the grand scheme of college basketball.
The Buckeyes did more than just a few things wrong against the Hoosiers, including getting into early foul trouble, which led to a rather underwhelming defensive effort in the second half.
Any situation where defense isn't up to par is that last thing Matta can tolerate, especially because a repeat of that kind of performance, only if one time, would be more than enough to prematurely end Ohio State's season for the second-consecutive year.
"I have been around this program a long time, so it was nothing new - that's how coach Matta is," said Sullinger. "He doesn't want to be the person who has to motivate the basketball team but after that tough loss against Indiana, it was only right."
The Buckeyes responded well, beating Nebraska by over 30 just days after suffering a loss on the final day of 2011. If a statement hadn't been made in its blowout of Nebraska in Value City Arena, Ohio State added an encore performance with a 29-point victory over Iowa Jan. 7 in Iowa City.
"We had the ability to learn a lesson here in the end of December and continue to move forward," said Matta, a situation now that's an immense contrast to the one the head coach faced after Ohio State's loss in the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
Sullinger, who sat out the final 10 minutes of the first half at Indiana while dealing with foul trouble, acknowledged responding to mistakes is magnified when his team comes up short in a game.
"Better (to suffer a loss) now than later," Sullinger said. "It was a life-lesson. We gave up 17 layups against Indiana and they got whatever shot they wanted in the second half. As you can see we turned up our defensive intensity (against Nebraska). We're just wanting to play basketball."
The number of losses Matta's Ohio State teams have suffered during the regular season doesn't equate consistently to what to expect in the postseason.
In 2006 Ohio State suffered only three losses in the regular season, which was ended with 14-consecutive victories before winning the Big Ten Tournament crown. That team went all the way to the NCAA Tournament's championship game before falling to Florida, only the team's fourth loss of the season.
There isn't a mathematical equation for how to properly prepare a basketball team for March, Matta said, because each year's team takes on a different personality.
This year's Ohio State team, figured by all the national publications to be a favorite to advance to the Final Four before the season started, is still molding into a product Matta would eventually be proud to call a national title contender.
But if each loss is an opportunity to grow – even a little more than what would have been gained in a victorious effort – Matta is going to squeeze every last drop out of that potential.
"One of the biggest challenges you face is getting guys to understand that if what you did yesterday is important to you than you haven't done a damn thing today and building that mentality," Matta said. We're in the middle for the season and we are facing the reality that we can always get better and that's what we're after our guys about.
"You are constantly trying to learn your team. Just getting these guys to understand the level that they have to play at every time they take the floor is our job to do. We are just trying to get guys to understand what has to be done."