Matta Goes To Bat For His Team

Ohio State men's basketball coach Thad Matta stuck up for his team following Monday's win over Norfolk State at Value City Arena. Matta commended his team for its focus, even as its status for this year's NCAA Tournament is in doubt as the NCAA infractions committee delays a hearing on wrongdoing by the school and former coach Jim O'Brien has his lawsuit heard by an Ohio court.

Ohio State basketball coach Thad Matta stood up for his players on Monday night after their 92-59 thrashing of Norfolk State.

The coach was asked about how it feels to finally see his team, which improved to 5-0 on the year with the win, ranked 25th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

Matta answered the question and then made comments defending his players, who have had to deal with uncertainty and turmoil regarding their eligibility for the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

"It is truly amazing what they've been through with what the hell is going on right now," the second-year coach said. "They just come in and go to work. That's what I love about them. And nobody gives them any credit.

"I see it on a daily basis. We're not there yet, but I love their passion for the game."

Matta was hired in July 2004 in the wake of Jim O'Brien's firing a month earlier. O'Brien, who coached the Buckeyes for seven seasons, was fired by then-OSU athletic director Andy Geiger for admitting he once loaned $6,700 to Serbian recruit Aleksandar Radojevic.

The school self-reported violations in the Radojevic matter and more alleged wrongdoing was discovered in the living arrangements of former OSU player Boban Savovic. Ohio State held itself out of the NCAA Tournament a year ago as punishment for those past transgressions – even before the NCAA had time to complete its full investigation.

This past Friday, the NCAA Committee on Infractions was set to hear the case against OSU. But the hearing was delayed indefinitely. Matta was in Indianapolis – along with O'Brien, Geiger, new AD Gene Smith and university president Karen Holbrook – for the hearing on Friday.

Meanwhile, O'Brien's lawsuit against Ohio State claiming wrongful termination went to trial today in the Ohio Court of Claims. The former coach is seeking $3.5 million in the suit.

Geiger and O'Brien each took turns on the witness stand earlier today. Holbrook is scheduled to testify in the case on Tuesday.

It is believed that the NCAA will await the outcome of the trial before proceeding with its hearing. Penalties the OSU could hand down include forfeits of past games and championships, the return of past NCAA Tournament money, scholarship restrictions and possibly one more season of a postseason ban, although most observers feel that is unlikely.

When Friday's hearing was postponed, Matta flew on to Philadelphia to be with his team as it prepared for Saturday's game against St. Joseph's. OSU won that game 81-74 before a raucous crowd at the Palestra.

"It's hard to walk into Philadelphia and say, ‘It got delayed, but by God you better play hard,' " Matta said of the words he had to share with his team.

A year ago, the Buckeyes shrugged off the self-imposed postseason ban and posted a 20-12 season, punctuated by a late-season win over then-unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Illinois.

Matta hopes to see the same kind of attention to detail from this team – even as its tournament status hangs in the balance.

"I hope so," Matta said. "Last year, we said we had to channel our focus into something we can control. I give them credit. For the most part, they haven't let that affect them."

The delay in the OSU hearing could be detrimental to the program. Matta has the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class lined up for next year, led by top overall prospect Greg Oden, a 7-0 center from Indianapolis.

If the ruling is pushed beyond the start of this year's NCAA Tournament and the Buckeyes are eventually dealt another season with a postseason ban, the players in that vaunted class could opt to go elsewhere. In an almost unprecedented move, the school provided those players with that option when they signed their letters-of-intent in November.

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