Ohio State head coach Thad Matta has deep ties to Butler, his alma mater. He played there for two years, was an assistant coach at the school, and also began his head coaching career there (2000-01).
The Buckeyes (1-0) opened their season with an 81-52 victory over visiting Chicago State on Sunday.
The Bulldogs (2-1) competed in the BCA Invitational in Laramie, Wyoming, earlier this season and placed fifth in the eight-team field. Butler lost its opening game to UNC-Wilmington (75-59), but the Bulldogs rolled past Alabama State, 70-61, and Lehigh, 66-41, on consecutive days. UNC Wilmington went on to capture the championship at the tournament.
Butler's best player is 6-6 senior forward Brandon Polk who is averaging 17.7 points per game.
"Butler is a very disciplined basketball team," Matta said. "They've got skill at every position. I think that (head coach) Todd (Lickliter) does a great job of teaching those guys how to play and execute. They are going to try and run their stuff and they're very good at it. In the three tapes that we've watched, they score off their actions."
Matta knows a lot of people at Butler on a personal level. But he has an especially tight relationship with Lickliter.
"Todd actually coached me for one year when I was playing at Butler," Matta said. "Then we were assistants together (and then Lickliter was an assistant on Matta's staff). I think there are some similarities. The same type of mentality, probably a lot of the same terminology is used. I'm sure after I left he – he didn't learn much from me – so he put his own stuff in.
"After I left, going back and watching Butler play was always exciting because they were running a lot of the same stuff that we ran the year Todd and I were together there, or the two years we were together."
One of the reasons OSU wanted to schedule a series with Butler was to make sure recruits Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. would have a chance to play in their hometown (OSU will play at Butler next year).
"Yeah, it is," Matta said. "And it gets us back into Indianapolis. Butler and Ohio State played for years. I think it was the season opener every year when Coach (Tony) Hinkle and Coach (Fred) Taylor were coaching. I think Coach Hinkle got his 500th win at Butler against Ohio State. And I like going against a team like Butler, because of their structure and how they play. It's three hours away and we've got an alumni base in Indianapolis and the state of Indiana, and I think that helps us away."
(One quick sidebar: Butler's arena – Hinkle Fieldhouse – was the site of the state championship scene in the movie Hoosiers.)
Matta actually began his playing career at Southern Illinois University. He was asked why he transferred to Butler prior to his junior year.
"They weren't very good and I thought I could play. That was it to a T," he said with a laugh. "But no, I always wanted to go to a school in a city and at that time, Butler wasn't as good of a program as it is now.
"I knew the Missouri Valley (Southern Illinois' conference) wasn't my cup of tea. I was always caught at half-court in transition. Guys were running past me, defense, offense, and I knew (it wasn't for me). I always tell our guys, ‘Recruit guys that aren't like me.'"
Matta's lone season at Butler will not soon be forgotten by its fans. The Bulldogs went 24-8, won the Horizon League championship over Wright State, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"The year I was there, we played Wake Forest in the first round and beat them," Matta said. "And then lost to Arizona. And it was funny because we played Arizona earlier in the year and we were down like two with a minute to go at Arizona. So, there was no element of surprise and that was when they were playing about as well as anybody, so they got us pretty good. But the Wake game, that's the one we were up 43-10 at halftime. It was incredible and the AD for Xavier was sitting in the crowd."
As for Ohio State, Matta's primary concern about his undersized team is rebounding.
"It is," he said. "It's an area that we've got to continue to get better at. Getting guys to understand that they can't take a play off when it comes to rebounding. All five guys must rebound the basketball. I think we can improve on it. I felt we got better at it through the course of the (Chicago State) game, but it's just a mentality. That's one of those habits when you play six months of pickup basketball, you don't block out or rebound the ball in pickup basketball. It's something that we've got to get a better mentality about.
"I've coached one of the greatest rebounders I think I'll ever coach in Dave West (at Xavier). You just knew every night that he was going to get you 12 rebounds. We just don't have that luxury here."
What about senior center Terence Dials. How close is he to reaching West's level?
"Completely different," Matta said. "Dave was a guy – I'll never forget the first time I met with Dave – I said, ‘You haven't shot any threes in two years here and I like my big guys to step out and be mobile.' And I'll never forget, he told me, ‘Coach, no offense to your system, I like to make shots and the closer I am to the basket, the better chance they have of going in.' And I was like, ‘You should be a coach,' because that's pretty astounding there. But as Dave wore on, he developed a 3-point shot and you look at him now with the (NBA's New Orleans/Oklahoma City) Hornets and he's playing the three, the four, and just had 34 points the other night."
Sophomores Jamar Butler and Matt Terwilliger were suspended for the Chicago State game for participating in a charity 3-on-3 tournament during the offseason. Matta is pleased to get them back in the fold.
"Well, I think that we've got to continue to get better," Matta said. "We have to sustain our effort. I think getting Jamar and Matt back will really help us, because we got a little tired (Sunday). Now, having more bodies we can run in I think will definitely help us. Continuing to get our half-court execution down will be huge. We work a lot in practice on it, but we haven't used it in the three games we've played."
Another point of emphasis will be to pound the ball inside to the 6-9 Dials.
"We don't have a play in our system that doesn't first look inside, so we're always going to try and do that," Matta said. "But we want to try and play our way, and knowing Butler is very good of not letting you do that. They're very sound defensively."
Matta went with a small starting lineup against Chicago State, including Dials, Matt Sylvester and three guards – Sylvester Mayes, Je'Kel Foster and Ron Lewis. The coach was asked if he has thought about inserting senior J.J. Sullinger into the lineup to get more rebounding help.
"I think that's something we've got to really look at, because as I put him in the game I told him, ‘You've got to rebound the basketball,' and he got four rebounds in seven minutes right out of the gate. He's really taken to rebounding the ball, which is good to see."
Matta is not concerned with picking a starting lineup and sticking with it. Other than Dials, all other spots are open and anyone could start on any given night.
"Yeah, absolutely," Matta said.
With just 10 scholarship players on the roster this year, and one walk-on, Matta was asked if he considered asking Nate Salley to join the team. Salley, a senior safety on the football team, played on OSU's basketball team as a freshman in 2002-03.
"I did," Matta said. "But I think his focus is probably on getting ready for Sundays. But I did. I talked to Nate the other night. I had never met him before and I love watching him play. So yeah, I think he's more focused on getting ready for his future."
Lewis Jumps Right In
The Chicago State game served as a very good debut for Lewis in his hometown. The 6-4 guard, a transfer from Bowling Green, scored 16 points, including four thunderous dunks.
"Well, I knew I was going to have a couple dunks, but not as many as I had," Lewis said. "But yeah, it was a good debut. I hope it continues. And with that is just us getting together and playing together like we were doing, because Sylvester Mayes had nine assists. So, that's just us playing together and getting a feel for each other."
Lewis' game came as advertised. He's a hard-nosed slasher who enjoys contact and getting to the line.
"Yeah, that's what I like to do a lot, get to the free throw line," he said. "I didn't hit all my free throws (Sunday) but it's another game. That game is over with and we have to look forward to Butler now."
Lewis was asked for the game plan against the Bulldogs.
"We just want to go out there and play together," he said. "The main thing for us is jus pressuring them and playing together on defense, because we know they run a whole lot of sets and the sets are something we have to get through."
Ohio State was able to spread around the scoring against Chicago State. Lewis and Foster were the high scorers, but Lewis knows getting everyone involved is good for team chemistry.
"Yeah, because nobody on this team is really looking at numbers," he said. "We're just looking out and trying to get the win. We know we have to score to win, so somebody is going to have the high game some night, and somebody's not. So, we're not really concerned with that, we're just concerned with how we play together and if we win or not. Our ultimate goal is to win, so whoever has the high points, it doesn't even matter with us."
Lewis was Bowling Green's leading scorer two years ago with 17 points per game. Dials will likely end up as OSU's leading scorer this season, but there's also a chance it could be Lewis.
"If that's how the cookie crumbles, that's how it crumbles," Lewis said. "But I'm not trying to be the leading scorer, but if that's how it comes out, that's how it comes out. I'm just trying to play within the system. So, within the system, if it's fit for me to score, that's what I'm going to do. If it's fit for me to get the ball to people like Terence Dials, that's what I'm going to do. Everybody has their hot nights and one of the nights was mine."