The X-Factor

It's the first time Ohio State and Xavier have met since 1984. But Saturday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, the Buckeyes and Musketeers will be overshadowed by Ohio State head coach Thad Matta facing his former team for the first time. He and Xavier head coach Sean Miller, also one of Matta's best friends, will grab the headlines for an intriguing second-round NCAA match-up. Kyle Lamb has more.

Gazing constantly at the hanging scoreboard above the historic Rupp Arena floor, it didn't take a fly on the wall to interpret the emotions of Thad Matta. His expression told his story.

The Ohio State head coach watched with a fixed look on his emotion-riddled face Thursday evening. His Buckeyes had just knocked off Central Connecticut in convincing fashion, 78-57.

But Matta had a dilemma.

If BYU wins, he avoids facing his former team - Xavier. He avoids the chance that vengeance rears its' ugly head. There are many Xavier fans, right or wrong, that think Matta losing to Xavier would be karma.

Still, it was sensible for Matta to pull for Xavier, despite the fact the regular season Atlantic 10 Champion Musketeers would be Ohio State's second-round opponent. Head coach Sean Miller coached for Matta during his three-year stint from 2001 to 2004. The two remain best of friends.

Xavier did win Thursday night, setting up a clash between the two schools for the first time since 1984. In the process, Matta took a beating from the X faithful that made the short trip down I-75 to Lexington.

He was serenaded to a chorus of boos at every opportunity.

"As a coach, I think that some people think that you are not a human being," Matta was quoted as saying in the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I don't know what they think you are, but Sean is one of the best friends I have in life, and I want him to go as far as he can."

Naturally, Matta does not want that to come at his expense.

Saturday at 1:10 pm eastern, the two will meet at center court, exchange pleasantries and it will be business as usual. But this won't be Miller time on Saturday. This won't be about Matta, either.

It will be about two teams - Ohio State (31-3) and Xavier (25-8) going head-to-head for a trip to San Antonio in the Sweet Sixteen. After all, this is what Matta left Xavier for in the first place.

The Musketeers have been far from a non-factor. Xavier has twice made the NCAA Tournament since Matta's departure - the same amount as his Buckeyes.

But Matta was announced as the next Ohio State head coach on July 7, 2004 following the dismissal of Jim O'Brien over three weeks earlier. A native of Hoopeston, Ill., Matta grew up an avid fan of the Big Ten and accepted the position after blowing off a few earlier overtures by then OSU Director of Athletics Andy Geiger.

The decision was a blow to Xavier fans, who previously held Matta to public statements of his intentions to remain at the university.

But to most people, despite his phenomenal three-year run at Xavier where he won 78 games, including three NCAA Tournament appearances, and one in the Elite Eight, it was a logical choice. Ohio State is a major state university in the conference Matta loves and has facilities, resources and support in numbers.

Matta's vision entailed numerous Big Ten Titles, Final Four appearances and National Championships. The foundation was laid with a graduated senior class last season at Ohio State that won an outright Big Ten Championship. His stellar freshmen class of Greg Oden, Daequan Cook, Mike Conley, David Lighty and junior college transfer Othello Hunter have carried the momentum with a second conference title and No. 1-ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

The wounds for Xavier fans seemingly healed in time. Miller has kept Xavier on the map with successful in-state recruiting - another major storyline this weekend.

But as the brackets were disclosed this past Sunday evening, the presence of the two peas in one NCAA pod stirred up emotions. Someone threw a large handful of salt into the freshly opened wounds.

When Pete Gillen left Xavier for Providence, the Musketeers rebounded with Skip Prosser. When Prosser bolted a few years later for Wake Forest, once again, Xavier responded by hiring Matta from Butler after an impressive 22-8 first season. Neither Gillen nor Prosser are targets of the same ill-will demonstrated toward Matta.

It's time to let it go.

Perhaps Matta could have said he would never rule out another job. Certainly then his recruiting might have suffered, but hey, at least he wouldn't be going against his word.

Xavier hasn't missed too much a beat. Miller has brought in Ohio standouts Josh Duncan (Cincinnati Moeller), B.J. Raymond (Toledo St. John's), John Wolf (Cincinnati St. Xavier), Derrick Brown (Dayton Chaminade-Julienne) and Andrew Lavender (Columbus Brookhaven).

Brown selected Xavier over Ohio State after Matta left. Matta recruited Brown while at Xavier, but Brown lost interest after the transition. Lavender was interested in returning to play for hometown Ohio State after announcing a transfer from Oklahoma, but wound up heading for Xavier.

If the Matta-Miller, Ohio State-Xavier storylines weren't enough to pique your interest, perhaps the slew of Ohio products looking to make a statement should put the game over the hump.

When Matta leaves the Ohio State locker room Saturday and gives a blank stare back into the Xavier crowd, he'll be re-living some of the same memories and emotions all over again. There will be plenty of familiar faces on the opposite sideline.

However, he's only looking for one particular headline that matters: a victory.

You can see it in his face on Saturday if you look closely. It's the same look Xavier fans fell in love with in the first place.

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