Ohio State Set For Final Four

It's go-time for Ohio State and head coach Thad Matta. After years of recruiting and selling a vision about Big Ten Championships, Final Fours and National championships, Matta has a chance to get his team just one step away from everything coming to fruition. To play for a title Monday night, Ohio State first has to get by Georgetown tonight at 6:07 pm in the first semifinal game.

Thad Matta isn't psychic, but don't tell that to the "Thad Five." The vision he recruited them with to sign with Ohio State has suddenly become prophetic.

This evening at 6:07 pm eastern, Matta's wildest dreams come true. His hard work, the process that landed four freshmen and a junior college transfer which laid the foundation of Buckeye basketball all comes full circle in Atlanta.

It's the Final Four.

Already, the 39-year old head coach had a blast from his past when Ohio State (34-3) narrowly escaped an overtime affair with his former institution Xavier in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But now, Matta gets to tackle his desired future when Ohio State competes in the first national semifinal game against Georgetown (30-6).

"Obviously very excited for our players, for Ohio State, to be a part of the Final Four," said Matta Friday at the NCAA press conference. "I think we've got what I think is probably one of the greatest Final Fours as far as the players and the teams involved."

When Matta became the Ohio State head coach in July of 2004, he was hoping to engineer many Big Ten Championships, NCAA Tournament appearances, Final Fours and possibly even a few National Championships. Although a 20-win season in his first year was somewhat overshadowed by looming NCAA sanctions and a self-imposed ban on the tournament, Ohio State has never looked back.

The Buckeyes have won two consecutive Big Ten titles and made the NCAA Tournament last year as a 2-seed and this season as a No. 1-seed ranked first in the final regular season AP poll.


But this trip to the Final Four, a journey that no one on the Buckeye roster would surmise is complete, was not like a walk in the park. Only Ivan Harris was around for the last season under Jim O'Brien - which yielded a 14-16 finish and no postseason. But the instability in the program alone was unsettling.

"You know, this is a once-in-a-lifetime situation," said junior guard Jamar Butler, who signed with O'Brien in high school at Lima Shawnee. "Coach just says have fun with it, you know, just keep doing what we've been doing all season and be all right."

One of the many breaks that had to go Ohio State's way to get to Atlanta this season was Butler's transition from point guard to shooting guard. Although it's not a position Butler was totally uncomfortable with - playing off the ball some in high school, it was clear early in the season the move was not an easy one.

Still, Butler has responded by averaging 8.6 points and 3.7 assists per game. His complimentary performance has allowed freshman point guard Mike Conley to emerge as one of the nation's best.

Conley broke the all-time single-season assist record at Ohio State with 226. His 6.1 assists per game have actually taken a backseat in the tournament to his clutch scoring. The 6-1 guard is averaging 11 points per game and shooting 51.4 percent from the field.

"His poise is beyond his years," added Georgetown head coach John Thompson III on Conley. "You watch him play. He's an extremely poised player. He doesn't make that many mistakes."

But of all the matchups to keep an eye on this evening, perhaps the biggest figuratively and literally speaking is 7-2 junior Roy Hibbert against 7-1 freshman Greg Oden.

While Oden has deflected speculation as to whether or not he's playing his final weekend as a collegiate basketball player, he couldn't receive a better test on the big stage than Hibbert.

Hibbert averages 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He has shot 67 percent from the field and his long arms and size accounted for 2.4 blocks. Not to be outdone, Oden has averaged 15.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and shot 61.7 percent.

It's one of the best battles of big men the college game has arguably seen this deep in the tournament in years.

"I think what he's done, he's really fine-tuned all of his skills," Matta said of Hibbert. "I think he understands the game even better because he's a year older."

Perhaps the only thing bigger than stopping Hibbert tonight for Ohio State is stopping the Hoyas' leading scorer Jeff Green.

That's likely easier said than done.

Green's stats probably don't tell his story. At 6-9, blessed with strength, athleticism, perimeter skills, shooting and great instincts, Green is a nightmare to defend. He averages 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from outside the arc.

"If you're talking about Jeff Green, don't even look at the stat sheet," scolded Thompson. "He has the unique ability to thoroughly dominate a game without scoring points, to thoroughly dominate a game with his pass, thoroughly dominate a game with his understanding, his ability to place other people on the floor where they can have success."

One of the guys tasked with that challenge of offsetting Green might be senior Ron Lewis. If ever there were an in-season award for comeback player of the year, Lewis would be a candidate.

The 6-5 senior was bottoming out around midseason. His season scoring average of nearly 15 points per game was down nearly to 10, and his lofty three-point shooting percentage had dropped from 48 percent around the start of Big Ten to nearly 30 percent early in February.

In the last eight games, including the season finale versus Michigan as well as the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament, Lewis has stepped up his game. The former Columbus Brookhaven High School state champion has averaged 18.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game that in that span, shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from three-point range.

"He's a terrific player who has been playing at an extremely high level right at the end of the year when they need him to," Thompson said.

When the ball tips this evening, Conley, Oden, freshman David Lighty, Daequan Cook and junior Othello Hunter will be cementing themselves in the Ohio State record books. It's just the kind of thing Matta had in mind when he began formulating the "Thad Five."

To say this is the pinncale would be an understatement. Ohio State has reached the Final Four just three times in 40 years, one of which doesn't technically count. But like that appearance in 1999, Matta nor anyone else will soon forget a Final Four.

Especially since this is his first one.

That foretelling charismatic coach saw this one coming three years ago.

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