Matta To Unveil Team With Exhibition

The Buckeyes continue to deal with the absence of senior guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, whose mother was killed in a car accident last week. But coach Thad Matta will make his debut at Value City Arena tonight as OSU hosts Northern Kentucky in an exhibition (7 p.m.).

Tonight was supposed to be a joyous occasion as Thad Matta was set to unveil his first Ohio State men's basketball team. The occasion is still on as OSU will host Division II power Northern Kentucky for an exhibition at 7 p.m. at Value City Arena.

But it will be far from a joyous affair with the team still dealing with the death of senior point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham's mother in a car accident last week in Pennsylvania.

Matta told reporters that Fuss-Cheatham is still in the Pittsburgh area attending to his father, who was seriously injured in the car crash that claimed his mother.

"I think he is going to stick around until Wednesday and maybe Thursday, moreso to just make sure his dad is OK," Matta told reporters Monday. "He wants to be there for him. Hopefully he will continue to progress the way he has and that will give everybody a little bit more comfort in that situation."

Matta said the Buckeyes have tried to press on without Fuss-Cheatham. Tonight's game will be part of that.

"You try to keep your focus on what we have to get done, but you know there is a family member who literally can not be a part of it," the coach said. "That person is going through a lot of pain and suffering. My biggest concern is that he is going to be OK. We're going to be fine. That's just something you have to deal with. I told the players we're going through some tough times, but you have to keep the big picture in mind with what we're trying to do."

Speaking after the tragedy last week, Matta told reporters, "My least concern right now is when he gets back. As long as it's going to take him to take care of his family matters, I have no problem with that. There is nothing more important than our families."

Fuss-Cheatham's teammates discussed how they plan to support their hurting teammate.

"I think it will be good for him to get back as soon as he can to get into the flow of thing," said senior guard Tony Stockman. "I'm worried about him and how he's going to be. We just want to keep his spirits up and be there for him.

"I think any effect this may have might be to motivate us to do good for him and his family. We want to have a good season and win for him and keep his spirits up."

Junior guard J.J. Sullinger told reporters that team members went to Pennsylvania to support Fuss-Cheatham.

"It's been tough for us," Sullinger said. "Anytime one of your teammates has a loss like that it's going to be tough. We are trying to be there for him. Something you can't replace is your mom, no one can. But we'll just try to fill in as we can when he needs it. We're there and he knows that. We went down there to support his family and they were glad to see us. We'll just do whatever we can. He knows he has a team that loves him.

"As important as this game is to us, that's all it is to us -- a game. There are things we need to do here, but this is always going to come secondary to something like that."

Matta discussed how the team is coping with Fuss-Cheatham's absence.

"I think they're doing well," Matta said. "Brandon has done a nice job of running this team so far. I think there's a little bit of a void there."

Matta Era Begins

Matta, 37, became the 13th head coach in OSU history on July 7. He discussed seeing his first OSU team go into live action against an opponent at Value City Arena, even if it is just an exhibition game.

"I honestly haven't had any time to think about it," Matta said of his debut. "(Tonight) will probably be a little bit of a different experience. When I went from Butler to Xavier and now to hear, `Thad Matta, coach at Ohio State,' and realize, wow, I've made a change again … but that's just something I've got to get through, keep coaching this team and get them better each day."

Matta said he senses that OSU fans are eager to see his program succeed.

"From the people I've come in contact with, the number one thing is these people love the Buckeyes," he said. "They want any Ohio State sports team to do well. I think they are anxious for us to get going and to see what this team is capable of doing."

The coach discussed what he wants to see tonight.

"I think we want to stay with what we've been talking about -- playing solid defense and taking care of the basketball," Matta said. "Those are the two things I want to focus on, then playing hard and smart.

"I think it's going to be interesting to sit down after the game and look at the tape and see who played well with the lights on. We'll see if we were able to carry over from practice to games. That's the biggest thing I'm looking for, the carry over from what we've worked on."

It is apparent that defense and conditioning will be calling cards of the new regime.

"Defensively, we're getting better," Matta said. "But we're not close to where we need to be. That's something that is mind-set and repetition and teaching. The conditioning aspect, I believe to play the basketball at the highest level you've got to be in the greatest shape of your life. The guys who aren't in shape, they join the Lance Armstrong Club and bike after practice."

As of Monday afternoon, Matta said he had not settled on a starting lineup.

For the team's open scrimmage, Fuss-Cheatham, Stockman and Sullinger opened in the backcourt and junior Terence Dials and sophomore Ivan Harris started inside.

"I think that is something we'll sit down and say we need to get these guys a certain number of minutes," Matta said. "We want to make sure that next Monday night (for the opener against Towson) nothing is foreign to them."

Stockman said the exhibition will help the Buckeyes establish some of their identity.

"It helps define people's roles," he said. "People play different sometimes in practice than in games. The first couple games should help us figure out what we need to work on. I think the team is ready to play and excited to play. I think it's going to be fun."

After a grueling off-season of early morning workouts as well as a coaching change, Sullinger said the Buckeyes are ready to get back in front of a crowd.

"Everybody is excited," Sullinger said. "It will be a good test for us tomorrow. Everybody has working extremely hard as a team. We've worked on team chemistry and everything it takes for us to be a good team. This will be a good chance for us to see where we stand as a team. We want to play together, play hard and play good defense.

"We're tired of beating up on each other. People have really been going hard at each other. I think it will be good to see us all together on one team instead of two teams going at each other."

The Opposition

NCAA schools no longer play traveling teams for their exhibitions. Instead, Division I schools are calling on smaller division schools to play exhibition games. Northern Kentucky was 16-15 last season. The Norse are playing for first-year coach Dave Bezold.

NKU gave Kentucky a good run last Wednesday in Rupp Arena. NKU trailed 41-38 at halftime before falling 91-73. Northern Kentucky guard Mike Kelsey scored 18 of his game-high 27 points in the first half. Northern Kentucky held a 20-12 advantage with 12 minutes left in the half, but the Wildcats made eight consecutive free throws to tie the score at 20-all. Kentucky then scored 15 unanswered points to give the Wildcats a 27-20 lead with 7:20 left in the half. The Norse made 7-of-12 shots from long range in the first half and shot 46 percent from the field.

"We're playing a great basketball team," Matta said. "What they were able to do at Rupp Arena was amazing. I think this will be a great challenge for us. They've got some Division I players and some transfers in there. I know they play very intelligently, they don't turn it over and they've got some great shooters."

Sullinger added, "They're a pretty good team. They're a Division II powerhouse. We definitely can't underestimate them. It's more about us and what we need to do."

Those comments were made prior to NKU's game at Cincinnati Monday night. The Bearcats jumped out to a 22-3 lead to open the game and a 43-25 advantage at halftime on their way to a 103-64 exhibition victory. Harrison Morton led NKU with 21 points, while Kelsey had 14 points on 3-of-9 shooting from three-point range.

Buckeye Sports Top Stories