After Michael Conley Jr. played, as it turns out, was his third-to-final game in a brief but memorable Ohio State career, he left, simultaneously, a lasting impression and a large void.
"He has a feel when to go, when not to go," Matta said in the San Antonio Express-News late last March after the Buckeyes had just left the Alamo in a Regional Final victory over Memphis. "I love watching him play."
At the time, it seemed like an innocuous comment to make. Conley, the 6-1 freshman spark plug had taken ownership of the 35-4 Buckeyes and led them to the National Championship game, before falling to Florida.
While his high school teammate and long time companion Greg Oden grabbed the national spotlight, and shined it bright on Ohio State, it was Conley that kept the light from dimming.
Now, without Indianapolis natives Conley and Oden, Ohio State (17-10, 8-6 Big Ten) descends on Bloomington, Ind. tonight with little fanfare. Instead, it's a soulless squad searching for a leader.
Senior point guard Jamar Butler, who took a backseat to Conley sliding over off the ball as a junior, has failed to unite his young comrades. In fact, as fatigue and the rigors of a long season have obstructed his own personal success down the stretch, he's grown frustrated enough to lose his composure.
No one, including Matta, will say exactly what that entails, but it was enough to be benched for the first four minutes of Sunday's 58-53 loss in Columbus to conference leader Wisconsin.
A 32-32 halftime tie, the lack of heroics from Butler, or other National runners-up leftovers David Lighty, Matt Terwilliger and Othello Hunter left the Buckeyes to wilt under the pressure. Ohio State let a chance for a high-profile victory slip away in the closing minutes.
"I think it's a situation where we had three great looks at the basket in a crucial part of the game, a runner, a reverse-layup and in between there was a finish near the basket," Matta said Monday in the Big Ten Coaches' Teleconference. "We had, I thought, very good looks at the basket and for whatever reason with this team during crucial parts of the game we just haven't been able to knock those shots down."
Though Ohio State has averaged 33 points in both the first and second halves this season, the Buckeyes' field goal percentage, a lofty 47 percent in the first half, is just 43 percent after halftime.
Maybe it's depth. Maybe it's that the Buckeyes are depending on four freshmen in a rotation of (usually) eight players. Sure, freshmen are novice beginners the word implies, but that hasn't stopped Purdue from chasing down a possible Big Ten title this season.
And it didn't stop a group of unordinary newcomers from winning 22-consecutive games last year on their way to the Final Four in Atlanta.
While Matta was growing accustomed to watching his prototype point guard making those plays down the stretch last year, he was also getting spoiled. Snapping back to reality, Matta is finding life without an NBA lottery pick running the show a bit tricky.
Garnering every team's best defense, Butler's 3-point percentage has fallen slowly to 38.8 percent. His average hovers at 14.2 points per game as one of only two Buckeyes in double-figures.
The Buckeyes have been a model of inconsistency this season. In fact, perhaps the only thing consistent about them has been their inconsistent nature.
Freshman Jon Diebler, Ohio's all-time leading scorer in high school, has had five games of at least four made 3-pointers. In those games, he's 23-of-38 (61 percent). The rest of the season: 17-of-99 (17 percent).
Evan Turner, a fellow freshman from Chicago, has nine games scoring at least 10 points for the Buckeyes. He also has committed at least four turnovers in eight different games.
And lastly, there's McDonald's All-American and 7-footer, Kosta Koufos. Koufos, arriving at Ohio State with the loftiest credentials and most acclaim, started his first five games averaging 18.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. After a roller-coaster ride for several weeks, Koufos quietly has scored double-figures in the last 10 games, averaging 13.4 points and 7.5 rebounds in that span.
But winning basketball games isn't, or should be, about McDonald's All-Americans or one-and-done type of players.
Just ask Ohio State's Sunday opponent Bo Ryan.
Though asking him is a bit tricky, as Ryan is a cold shower to aspiring media members looking for a direct quote on any given topic, fortunately he's a little steadier on the basketball court. With very few early departures to the NBA, Wisconsin has thrived under Ryan, winning a pair of Big Ten Championships and appearing in six consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
He's done so losing only New Jersey Nets guard Devin Harris prematurely. Even Big Ten Player of the Year Alando Tucker stayed for his senior year – fifth year in the Wisconsin program.
"I don't say that anybody has a certain philosophy because I can't get in their minds to say what they're trying to do; I can just tell you our philosophy" Ryan said Monday. "I just try to get players here that will be a good fit, will listen and grow…I'm just trying to get the right fits and for the most part, we've been able to get the guys that can handle the rigors, stayed the course and worked extremely hard."
Illinois head coach Bruce Weber paid Ryan the ultimate compliment Monday.
"I think Bo Ryan has done an excellent job" Weber said of losing to Wisconsin for the second time this season last week. "I've been just so impressed with their consistency, team play and different people making plays."
Weber said the magic word: consistency.
Not that Matta, who holds a career 38-9 record in March with already five conference titles and a Final Four on his resume, needs a lesson in success. But for the first time, due to factors not beyond his own control, he's feeling a little turbulence in looking for that c-word.
"I think consistency is easier to deal with from the stand point of: even if you're consistently doing the wrong thing," Ryan said, "you can learn from that."
It seems the fourth-year mentor of the Buckeyes, having led them to back-to-back outright Big Ten titles, has done everything in his power to motivate this young group made up of six first and second-year Division I collegiate athletes. That includes motivational speeches, film sessions, canceling practice, 6 am gassers, extra shots, extra rest and even throwing his hands up in disgust.
Little has sunk in, as Ohio State prepares for Indiana tonight with a possible NCAA at-large bid teetering in the balance. Ryan has additional philosophies on consistency, or lack thereof.
"As long as (the players') minds are open, their ears are open, that's something that has to take place or the teachers can't teach," he added. "But if the student's still not learning, it's usually the teacher's fault."
When Conley was showcasing himself for the No. 4-pick in the NBA draft, carrying his team with him to the NCAA finals while his coach looked on, perhaps Matta had it a little too easy. Even on a bad day, when Ohio State didn't bring their A-game or when the Buckeyes nearly fumbled away a game similar to Wisconsin this past weekend, Conley, Oden and Ron Lewis were there to play rescue.
Matta's heroes didn't wear capes, but instead they led his basketball team.
He deserves quite a bit of credit of his own along the way, of course, but now he's forced back from playing spectator to fierce coaching competitor. Only now, he's got no leaders to lead.
And that's where Conley's void is still leaving its mark.