Matta Not Speechless This Time Around

Friday night, Ohio State will make its return to the NCAA Tournament with a prime-time contest against Siena. The last time the Buckeyes were in the Big Dance, head coach Thad Matta found himself speechless while trying to prepare his team for the biggest game of his career.

It was the biggest day of Thad Matta's career, and the Ohio State head coach was speechless.

Having assembled one of the greatest freshman classes in the history of college basketball, the head man for the Buckeyes was walking off the court in the Georgia Dome. It was the day of OSU's national championship showdown with Florida, and Matta was in step with center Greg Oden following the team's shoot-around that day.

At that moment, Matta realized he had absolutely nothing to say to his players.

"We were just talking and I said, ‘All my life I've lived for this game. I've given the pregame speech to myself as I'm running or walking or whatever. It's here, and I honestly don't have anything to say now' because we had won 22 straight games and it was just, ‘Let's keep doing what we're doing,' " Matta said.

"We just talked about this is what we had, this was the goal. This was what we had set out to do from day one at arriving at Ohio State."

For a coach who shows near-boundless passion and emotion on the sidelines during games, it had to be a foreign experience. Regardless, the Buckeyes would go on to lose to the Gators in the title game and then three freshmen including Oden departed for the professional levels.

With his depleted roster, Matta missed out on the NCAA Tournament the following season and wound up leading OSU to an NIT title. Now, after that one-year absence, the Buckeyes are again a part of March Madness.

This time around, the head coach has had plenty of things to tell his players as they attempt to make a similar run through the tournament. It was last month that Matta spoke with those players who were on last year's team about where this year's team could be headed.

"We were in the exact same position we were in this time last year," he said. "Obviously the light didn't go on as quick as it needed to."

Recently, he has also shown the team a copy of the annual "One Shining Moment" highlight video from the 2007 NCAA Tournament that prominently features the Buckeyes. The thought was to help give his team a better understanding for some of the history of the OSU program.

"I'm on this kick where I want our guys to have an understanding and appreciation for the Ohio State University," he said. "I said this is the last time we were in the tournament. Just trying to let those guys see what the tournament is all about."

The history lesson is a necessary one because only four players on the OSU roster were there for that tournament run. Two of them are walk-ons, one is injured and presumed out for the year and the other sat out that season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.

For players like freshman B.J. Mullens, the excitement of that season was experienced solely through his television set.

"The one that stands out is when Ron Lewis hit the big shot against Xavier," he said. "I remember sitting at home watching the game just wishing that Xavier was going to miss that free throw and they did and Ron Lewis came down and hit the three. That was a great experience, sitting at home and watching that game."

Today, the Buckeyes will practice in Dayton in preparation for Friday night's first-round matchup with Siena (9:30 p.m., CBS). Tomorrow will be the first NCAA Tournament game for nearly the entire OSU roster.

Sophomore center Dallas Lauderdale said he expects the first few minutes to be a time of nervousness for the Buckeyes.

"This is what we came to Ohio State for," Lauderdale said. "I think the first four minutes are going to be unreal, like, ‘I can't believe I'm in the NCAA Tournament, the CBS …" – Lauderdale then sang the network's theme music – "and all that. After you get that first four minutes out I'm sure we'll play normal basketball."

What qualifies as normal basketball for the Buckeyes remains a matter for debate. OSU enters the tournament having won four of its last five games after having endured a five-game stretch where it went just 1-4.

It's been that kind of season for the Buckeyes, but the hope is that their recent play in the Big Ten tournament is an indication that they might be peaking at the right time.

Either way, it's doubtful Matta will find himself lacking for words with this team.


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