OSU Notebook: Matta, Foster, Davidson

As the Buckeyes prepare for today's NCAA Tournament opener against Davidson (12:15 p.m., CBS), we have comments from coach Thad Matta on his job status and the Indiana vacancy. Plus, we have notes on Je'Kel Foster's shooting, Matt Sylvester's background at UD, Matta's background at UD, Davidson and two soon-to-be graduates. Plus, we have photos from Thursday's press conference and public practice session.

It says right in Thad Matta's contract as the Ohio State men's basketball coach that he can not discuss any other job opportunities during the regular season.

But everybody knows there is nothing regular about the NCAA Tournament. So, on the eve of his team's NCAA Minneapolis Region first-round game against Davidson (Friday, 12:15 p.m., CBS), there was Matta answering questions about rumors that had linked his name to the soon-to-be-vacant Indiana job since Mike Davis announced his resignation in late February.

"The fact that so much publicity was made of that was a credit to our players and the position they put us in as coaches," Matta said during a press conference at the University of Dayton Arena, where the Buckeyes will face Davidson. "I honestly haven't thought about it until yesterday. I have never had any interest in the Indiana job, nor do I have any interest in it today.

"When we came to Ohio State 19 months ago, we set out on a mission to rebuild Ohio State basketball. I think the commitment our staff has shown to the university exemplifies how we feel about Ohio State. I think the future at Ohio State is something I wake up every day and have a smile on my face."

Matta said Ohio State is a great coaching destination.

"I coached in-state at Miami and Xavier, but I guess I never understood the power and magnitude of Ohio State," Matta said. "I didn't realize it until I got here. I think I have one of the greatest jobs in the country. I am as committed to Ohio State as I can be.

"For me to think about another job … I won't have any of that."

Matta told reporters that even if he wanted to go somewhere else he isn't sure he could get that decision past his wife Barbara or their two daughters.

"I love my family and I know if I left I would be going solo," he joked.

But to clarify, a reporter asked Matta point-blank, "So you will be back at Ohio State next year?"

His reply: "As long as they will have me back, I will be back."

Foster's Fresh Start?

OSU senior guard Je'Kel Foster is hoping that some extra shooting will help break him out of his recent shooting slump. Over his last nine games, Foster is a dismal 9 for 62 (14.5 percent) on three-point attempts.

"I probably got up approximately 1,000 shots or something," Foster said. "Me and my dad were working on my shooting. I was working on my form. My dad was in Indy and he saw the ball coming off the side of my hand. I need to spread my fingers when I shoot the ball. I'll be doing that tomorrow."

Foster said he is not dwelling on his lack of success.

"I kind of think about it, but I have great teammates and some great coaches behind me," he said. "They keep telling me to shoot and just to keep confidence in myself."

Earlier this year, Foster was one of the national leaders in three-point shooting. Matta hopes his senior can regain that golden touch that helped him bury seven treys against Minnesota and six each against Iowa State and Illinois.

"It would be a tremendous boost for our team if he's making shots," Matta said. "He does so much off the ball that makes him a valuable player for us. I honestly haven't looked at the numbers and what he's shot. We don't have him out there to set screens. He's there to do what he does.

"I know how bad he wants to make shots. He brings so much to the table in so many ways. I love the kid so much and I want him to do well because I know how much he cares."

Matta said he went through a similar slump like this with another player.

"Lionel Chalmers went through the same thing," Matta said. "But Lionel took on the NCAA Tournament. He wasn't on the (NBA draft) board and ended up being the 34th player selected.

"Je'Kel just has to get his shots and do the little extra things he needs to do. We have talked about a couple of things that could help him. I have faith to go to him."

Matta looks at Foster, one of four senior captains, as a true team leader. So he is giving him some latitude to get his shooting back on track.

"Some of the guys call him Je'Kel Foster Matta," the coach said. "His leadership and intensity has been contagious. You appreciate guys who play like he does. There will be times when I say to him, ‘Je'Kel, get your team playing,' and he is very receptive to that."

Senior J.J. Sullinger said the Buckeyes stand behind Foster.

"Shooters have got to keep shooting," Sullinger said. "It was nice to see him hit back-to-back shots in that game and hopefully that will carry over. I never worry about Je'Kel and his shooting. He does so many other things. He is so valuable to our program."

Sylvester At Home

OSU senior Matt Sylvester is well acquainted with UD Arena. His dad, Mike, was a star for the Flyers in the early to mid-1970s.

Mike Sylvester had 36 points in Dayton's triple overtime loss to UCLA (and Bill Walton) in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.

"I used to go to some games there when I was younger," Sylvester said. "I had been to the Donoher Center when I was being recruited. There is a lot of tradition there. We had a lot of Dayton memorabilia in our home.

"Dayton was in my final five or six schools. I liked Dayton a lot. But I just wanted to be at a bigger place."

Sylvester has his own UD Arena memory. Playing as a sophomore at Cincinnati Moeller, Sylvester had a tip-in at the buzzer to defeat unbeaten Beavercreek in a 1999 district tournament game.

"It should be a big advantage for us to play there," Sylvester said. "It should be like a home game."

OSU's Big Ten tournament loss to Iowa snapped OSU's seven-game winning streak. But Sylvester believes the Buckeyes have the capability to start a new winning string.

"From right now, we control our destiny," he said. "We don't know how special this year could be. It has been special so far. We have made bonds that will last a lifetime. This year could be a special year. It's up to us to see how far we will go."

With the way OSU has gutted out games this year, Sylvester was asked if this team was similar to the school's 1999 NCAA Final Four team.

"There are some similarities with the physical and mental toughness both teams had," he said. "The road is there for us to get to the Final Four. But anything can happen in the tournament."

Sylvester credited Matta and his staff for the work they have done in their short time in Columbus.

"It has definitely been a long road with a lot of ups and downs," Sylvester said. "The new staff helped me get refocused as far as on and off the floor. They really sparked my interest back in basketball. They sparked my interest in being a good person on and off the floor. They really came and saved my life and they really saved the life of Ohio State basketball.

"The sky is the limit with these guys in charge."

Matta discussed what Sylvester brings to the table.

"Matt plays a very vital role in what we do," he said. "He has an ability and an understanding of the game of basketball. He is a fifth-year senior and he has been in some big games. He has done a tremendous job in some makeshift lineups and helped some other guys out."

Matta, Buckeyes At Home

Sylvester isn't the only member of the OSU family with fine memories at UD Arena. Matta recalled some big moments as a player at Butler as well as an assistant at Miami (Ohio) and head coach at Xavier.

As a player, Matta said he once scored the final eight points of a game to get the win after his team trailed by seven with 1:52 left.

As an assistant, Matta was on the staff at Miami (Ohio) in 1995 when the RedHawks upset No. 5 seed Arizona 71-62.

"I was there in '95 with Miami (Ohio) for a couple of games and it was all red," Matta said. "I hope to see the same thing. Probably the only thing that would be better is if we were playing at Nationwide."

And Matta won some of his biggest games as the coach at XU during trips up I-75 to UD Arena.

"We came up here with Xavier and they hadn't won here in seven years," he said. "We won two years in a row. We came back and won four games in four days to win the Atlantic 10 tournament. We knocked off the No. 1 team in the country (St. Joseph's) and also knocked off Dayton on its home floor to win the conference championship. Those are great memories."

OSU senior center Terence Dials is excited to play in the NCAA in his home state.

"We couldn't be happier with our draw," he said. "We hope fans come down and represent Ohio State real well."

Sullinger had some words of advice for OSU fans – many of whom have paid top dollar to attend the games at UD.

"We just want them to stand up," he said. "Don't ever sit down, just keep rooting for us, keep us going and keep us hyped.

"We're excited about this situation. It gives me goose bumps like nothing I've ever felt before. After everything we've been through, we'll be ready."

The NCAA Experience

As a head coach, Matta has led his teams to every NCAA Tournament they have been eligible for. That includes the 2001 NCAA while he was at Butler and the 2002-2004 tourneys when he was at Xavier. (OSU missed the tournament last year due to a self-imposed postseason ban.)

Matta's teams have won at least one game in every NCAA he has coached in, most notably his 2004 Xavier team that went 3-1 and fell to Duke in a regional final.

When asked what has helped him build a 6-4 career NCAA mark, Matta laughed and replied, "It's having real good players. I think we've been blessed to have the opportunity to be in the NCAA Tournament. We've had some success. I don't know if there is a formula for it. A lot of it is getting on a roll and just being prepared.

"Having guys that have been in the tournament helps. They understand the magnitude of every possession."

Matta's NCAA coaching debut was a laugher. His Butler team led Wake Forest 43-10 at halftime on its way to a 79-63 win.

"I felt really good that day," the coach joked.

But Matta said he has not spent a lot of time dwelling on the fact that this is, indeed, the NCAA Tournament.

"We don't talk a lot about it," he said. "We talk more about our program and Davidson and what we have to do to have a chance to win the game.

"I have been on that other side. I have been in as a 16th seed, a 14 seed and a 12 seed. I understand that when the ball gets tossed up, all of that stuff gets tossed out the window."

It is the fleeting nature of March Madness that makes every moment memorable, Matta said.

"It's just the process of preparing for games and the bus rides and the dinners with the kids and the practices," he said. "In the back of your mind, you are constantly thinking, ‘We need to win to advance.' I have great faith in them."

Sullinger said the Buckeyes believe in Matta's methods and they hope his track record can help them live up to their No. 2 seed.

"You're only as good as your leader and Coach Matta definitely has the formula to win," Sullinger said. "This staff does a great job of scouting and getting us prepared. That's what the NCAA Tournament is all about."

Dialing Up Davidson

Davidson comes into the tournament with a 20-10 record. The Wildcats were 10-5 and finished fifth in the South Division of the Southern Conference. During the regular season, Davidson took wins over UMass, St. Joseph's and Missouri and had losses at Duke, Charlotte, North Carolina and Syracuse.

The Wildcats, led by 17th year head coach Bob McKillop, start four seniors. They are led by 6-9 forward Ian Johnson (15.7 points per game) and 6-5 guard Brendan Winters (17.1 ppg).

"When I think of Davidson, I think of their experience," Matta said. "Offensively, they want to push the ball. We have to do a good job of getting back and not give them any easy baskets. We have to have great awareness of who's on the floor and what they're trying to do."

The Buckeyes say they are not taking Davidson lightly.

"This is the NCAA Tournament and anything can happen," Sullinger said. "We don't want to underestimate Davidson. It is a must-win for both teams. It will be a hard battle."

Dials added, "They are a great three-point shooting team. They like to get out in transition and go, similar to us. They are a mature team and it should be a great match-up."

Missing Commencement

Two OSU seniors will be graduating this week, but neither has plans to walk in graduation ceremonies Sunday – they hope to be playing in an NCAA second-round game.

"I took my last final (Tuesday)," Sullinger said. "It feels good. I can't complain.

"I have petitioned to walk (in graduation) in June. Obviously, if we win, we'll have a game on Sunday. I definitely don't want to be at graduation. I'll be a no-show."

Dials will receive his degree in sociology.

"I'm pretty sure I am done," he said. "It feels good to not have any more classes to take. I don't want to be there, either. I'm happy it's finally over with."

Also Notable

* Backup center Matt Terwilliger, who underwent an appendectomy March 6, has returned to light duty and could possibly play if needed.

"Matt has worked out a couple of days," Matta said. "I don't know if he's 100 percent or whether we'll play him or not. It was great to see him dunk at practice. As I told Matt and his family, I never want to jeopardize a guy's health for a game of basketball."

Trainers wrapped the area of the surgery, but Matta said Terwilliger removed the wrap and practiced without it.

OSU found itself in a bind in Sunday's loss to Iowa when it had to play the last 10 minutes of the first half without Dials, who had two early fouls.

"He has got to continue doing what he does," Matta said. "He has made dramatic improvement in limiting his foul trouble. He just has to be smart."

* As promised, Matta took his team to his favorite Dayton-area restaurant, Dominic's, where he swears by the lasagna.

"It was a phenomenal meal," Matta said. "They took real good care of us."

Matta took his Xavier teams there and his usual waitress had not gotten word of his job change.

"The waitress didn't know I was at Ohio State," he said. "When she heard that, she said she bled Scarlet and Gray."

* Big Ten teams were 2-0 in NCAA Tournament play on Thursday as Illinois defeated Air Force 78-69 and Indiana rallied to defeat San Diego State 87-83.

OSU will be joined in action on Friday by Iowa, which plays Northwestern State at 12:25 p.m.; Michigan State, which plays George Mason at 7:10 p.m. at Dayton; and Wisconsin, which plays Arizona at 12:30 p.m.

Illinois advances to face Washington on Saturday, while Indiana will meet Gonzaga on Saturday.

* Below are some photos from Thursday's press conference and public practice session at UD Arena.

The Buckeyes take the floor for public practice at UD Arena. A private practice took place earlier in the day at Miamisburg High School.

Taking the floor

Huddle up

Terence Dials

Matt Terwilliger was back in action

Ronald Lewis takes a shot

Thad Matta

Je'Kel Foster speaks with the media

J.J. Sullinger

Matt Sylvester and Sullinger field questions

Terence Dials

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