The hall-of-fame head coach now in his fifth season at North Carolina is enjoying an anomaly in modern college basketball that has caught the eye of Ohio State's fourth-year coach. As the top-ranked Tar Heels invade Value City Arena Wednesday night, they will be doing so with a roster laden with experienced talent.
A roster so experienced, in fact, that it boasts zero freshmen. In contrast, the Buckeyes have started two freshmen in each of their five games this season and have heavily relied on the contributions of their other three freshmen early on.
As a result, one team bears a striking resemblance to the same team that took the court last season when these two teams last squared off as part of the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
That team is not OSU.
"That's unheard of these days," Matta said of UNC's lack of freshmen. "I think that they were in a unique situation. I remember going through the recruiting process they went after a couple guys and were OK if they didn't get them. That is a very, very unique (situation) when you look at the caliber of programs that right now are relying heavily on freshmen."
Programs like OSU, for example. For the second consecutive season, the Buckeyes are being led in both scoring and rebounding by a freshman. This year, Kosta Koufos has taken that role from Greg Oden, the top pick in last year's NBA Draft. The 7-0 freshman is putting up an average of 18.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, but the coming battle he will experience in the paint goes a long way toward explaining the difference between these two teams.
Matching up with Koufos will be junior Tyler Hansbrough, a 6-9, 250-pound wrecking ball who is averaging 23.0 points and 9.0 rebounds – both team-highs.
It's a perfect summary of where the two programs have gone since they met on a warm, cloudless night in Chapel Hill, N.C., one season ago. Both teams advanced deep into the NCAA Tournament as No. 1 seeds, but the Tar Heels bowed out following a loss to No. 2 seed Georgetown in the regional finals while the Buckeyes advanced to the title game before being defeated by Florida.
When these two teams matched up last season, the Tar Heels prevailed to the tune of a 98-89 victory on their home court. This season, UNC returns eight lettermen and three starters.
The Buckeyes return six lettermen, two of whom were walk-ons pressed into active duty to give the team enough players to practice last season. Just two players who started for OSU against UNC last year are still on the roster. Of the 89 points they scored, the Buckeyes return just 20 of them this time around.
It all adds up to a pretty big advantage for the Tar Heels in the experience department, and Matta knows it.
"It would be a great thing to look and say in July, ‘OK, this is who we've got coming back, they've all been in the program,' " he said. "When we call ‘Fist Two,' guys will know exactly what we're calling on the first day of practice. That would be a great, great thing to have."
Regardless of the edge in experience and the lofty rankings, OSU senior guard Jamar Butler – who had six points, five assists and one steal against the Tar Heels last year – said this is the kind of game that he came to Columbus to be a part of.
"It's very exciting," he said. "This is what you come here for. This is what you dream about growing up as a kid, playing on national TV against the No. 1 team in the country and having a chance to play against them in your own gym."
The experience of the Tar Heels does give the Buckeyes one slight advantage: they know what UNC will be trying to do on the court. However, Matta said that would be the case regardless of how much – or little – experience the Tar Heels brought with them.
"The great thing about North Carolina, they're going to do what they do," he said. "They've got a little bit of the Green Bay Packers in them in that, ‘This is who we are, here we come, stop us.' "
And while not many are giving the Buckeyes a chance to win the game, Butler was confident in his team's chances.
"Whenever you can get the No. 1 team on your home floor, that's always an advantage to you," he said. "Our coaches have us prepared for this game. I think if we execute our game plan and we're sharp on all points, I think we come out with a win."
Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.