Shades of 2002

Ohio State is in Atlanta preparing for the Final Four. As they do, people are reminiscing about the last National Championship at Ohio State - the 2002 football season when Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes beat Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Kyle Lamb writes how in many ways, Thad Matta's current team stirs memories of that title run.

It was 3 am after Ohio State had just defeated Tennessee 85-84. Working late at the hotel with his assistants, head coach Thad Matta received a text message from OSU football coach Jim Tressel.

It was a simple congratulatory text message, much like the one he sent before the game wishing Matta and his team good luck.

This was common place among the budding friends. Often, Tressel's words of wisdom have been used by Matta to motivate his team. Tressel has even spoken to the basketball team once.

On the bring of the Final Four in Atlanta, which begins tomorrow, it becomes more likely that the two share more than just cellular phone texts - they could share the same fate.

Matta accepted the Ohio State basketball job on the premise it could be one of the prominent national programs in America.

"That job is a sleeping giant," said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo around the time of Matta's hiring from Xavier.

But others weren't so kind.

The majority failed to recognize what Matta was thinking about. How could he run a successful program when his team wasn't even the favorite on campus?

It's simple. Matta didn't want basketball to trump football - he just wanted to be equals.

"I think we can have both here," Matta said this week in the Final Four teleconfence. "I think the big thing for me is that I don't wake up every day and say, 'I want to make this a basketball school.' I don't want to do that."

Citing Billy Donovan at Florida and Rick Barnes at Texas, Matta believes the days of a school being slanted powerhouses in just one primary sport are over. Donovan and Florida football head coach Urban Meyer made history when the football and basketball teams held National Championships at the same time. This weekend, Florida is hoping to win a 2007 National Championship - which would be the first time the same school has won titles in the same school season in both sports.

The 2006-07 Ohio State men's basketball team entered the season with somewhat lofty expectations. Beginning the season ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, Ohio State currently sits No. 1 in the nation following the close of the regular season.

In a lot of ways, Tressel's words might be prophetic.

Despite the anticipation of success behind a recruiting class that most people stacked up as No. 1, or at worst, No. 2 behind North Carolina, many questioned whether or not Ohio State would live up to expectations because of youth and some inexperience. Some people even questioned if the Buckeyes could survive the first weekend of games in the NCAA Tournament.

In his third year at Ohio State, winning at least 20 games in all seven seasons as a head coach, Matta has reached the pinnacle. He's now, "been to the top of the mountain," in the immortal words of legendary wrestler, Hulk Hogan.

But Matta's pattern for success is looking more like Tressel's than Hogan, Florida or anything else.

On paper, the Buckeyes were supposed to be this good. In 2002, when Tressel and the Ohio State football team won a National Championship, the team had talent but was coming off a 7-5 season - the first at the helm in Columbus for Tressel.

In recent weeks, Ohio State has survived. They've won with late-game heroics, clutch performances, thrilling comebacks, hard work and a little bit of old-fashioned luck. No championship team has ever made a run at a title and not had a little bit of luck on its side.

A trademark of the 2002 football team? You bet.

That team had a flare for the dramatic. With heart-racing finishes against Cincinnati, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan and Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, it seemed like excitement followed Tressel wherever he went. Sometimes it was as if that team just willed itself to victory.

This season, Ohio State has had similar finishes against Tennessee (twice), Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, Xavier and Michigan. Although this team's Final Four run hasn't been as magical from a surprise standpoint as much as the 1999 run under Jim O'Brien, the Buckeyes - much like their football predecessors, are likely to be underdogs against Florida (or possibly UCLA) if they advance to the championship game Monday evening.

In Maurice Clarett, the Buckeyes had an injured superstar who's presence made them better. In Greg Oden, the basketball team also has that presence, minus the off-the-field problems that plagued Clarett even then.

With Craig Krenzel, Ohio State had a quarterback who had a knack for making plays when they counted. Krenzel was a leader but also tantamount to having a coach on the field. Mike Conley gives the basketball team a similar leader from the point guard position. One could argue, however, that in addition to Conley's smarts and clutch heroics, Conley's talent supercedes even Krenzel's.

Ron Lewis has been this year's Matt Wilhelm or Michael Jenkins - veterans that got it done. David Lighty has sported the role of Will Allen in recent weeks. Lighty has made some critical plays.

If this Ohio State team is truly one of destiny, it's going to have to act on behalf of the entire Buckeye nation.

First and foremost, the Buckeyes will have to escape an opponent that eliminated them from last year's NCAA Tournament in the second round. Georgetown defeated Ohio State 70-52 in what was practically a home contest in Dayton as a No. 2-seed.

But getting to the championship game against Florida would be more than just a title possibility. The game would be more than a plush ratings draw for CBS television - hoping to play off the BCS Championship storyline.

It would be that chance at redemption for the entire university and its fans. Ohio State would not just be looking to avenge an earlier 86-60 loss to the Gators in Gainesville. The Buckeyes are also looking for payback for a stunning 41-14 loss to Florida in the BCS game this past January.

"Coach Tressel has gone above and beyond the duty of helping us along the way," Tressel added. "He's been a sounding board for me. He's pointed me in the right direction on numerous occasions."

If Matta wants to thank Tressel, he can start by beating the Gators if given the opportunity. Tressel has stopped short in his words of encouragement from asking Matta to do the dirty work he couldn't finish, but what a fitting way to possibly reward your mentor?

In all reality, Ohio State might not get that chance. When the ball tips at 6:07 pm Saturday against the Hoyas, the Buckeyes might not be up to the task. Perhaps UCLA gets its own revenge against the team that beat the Bruins in last year's championship game.

When it's all said and done, Matta is hoping the text messages don't stop - especially through Monday night.

Matta is hoping the next 3 am message says, "just like football."

Or more appropriately, just like 2002.


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