OSU's Matta: 'They've got a very good team'

The OSU Buckeye ballclub is pleased to be in the NIT Final Four. But they aren't used to even being in this event at all. Last season No. 1 seed OSU met another NIT Final Four participant, Florida, in the NCAA championship game. The year before, the Buckeyes were seeded second in the Big Dance.

Fourth-year Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said his players have embraced quite well the fact that they aren't in the NCAA Tournament and are focused on winning the NIT.

"I think they have, I honestly do," he said of his 22-13 squad. "With only two true four-year seniors, those guys went from their freshman year not eiligble to play the postseason to being a No. 2 then a No. 1 seed (in the NCAA Tournament) and now the NIT. I've been pleased with how they've appproaced the NIT and how they are playing."

Matta guided his first Buckeye basketball team to a 20-12 campaign in 2004-05 and followed that effort with a 26-6 record and an outright Big Ten regular-season championship in 2006. In the 2007 season OSU won an outright Big Ten regular-season title and the league's tournament. Ohio State advanced to the NCAA title game and finished the season with a school record 35 wins, along with only four losses.

In eight years as a collegiate head coach, Matta's teams have produced 20 or more victories each year, including three years at Xavier (78-23) prior to becoming the OSU head coach and one season at Butler (24-8), his alma mater.

Matta's current team's season mirrors Ole Miss' season somewhat, especially the way the year unfolded late. The Buckeyes won their last two regular season games at home and then faced the same team in the Big Ten tourney they had just played to end the regular season.

Matta's team seems to have refocused, much like the Rebels, toward the end of the season and into postseason.

"I saw it at times throughout the course of the year," he said of his team coming together and stepping up. "Probably the last week of the season coming off the Minnesota game (71-57 loss in Minneapolis), there seemed to be a sharpness and edge to us in the Purdue game (80-77 win at home in overtime) and Michigan State game (63-54 win at home) and in the the Big Ten Tournament (67-60 loss to Michigan State in round one). Once we went into the NIT, guys just seeemed to be pretty sharp and focused on what needed to be done."

One starter returned from that record-setting 2006-07 season that ended with Ohio State advancing to the program's ninth Final Four, appearing in the NCAA title game, winning its second-consecutive outright Big Ten regular-season title and the program's first postseason league tournament championship. Senior Jamar Butler is the lone holdover among the starters from a year ago.

"We are similar in style of play to last year," Matta said of this year's edition of OSU hoops. "To be honest, this team has had to lean on everybody. The one thing I've said all year long is we needed more consistent play across the board. Maybe two guys would play well, then another game two guys would play well. The big thing is for us to get four, five, six guys to play well, not great, but well throughout a 40-minute game."

Matta says Ole Miss presents some hurdles for his team.

"One of the big challenges for us against Dayton was that we knew we had to do a better job rebounding the basketball," he said. "As for Mississippi, that is one thing they do a great job of and that's rebounding the basketball. It will be one of the big keys to the game."

Matta is impressed with Ole Miss and the progress Andy Kennedy has made with the program in two years.

"They've got a very good basketball team," he said of the 24-10 Rebels. "Andy's done a very good job in a short time. They have a number of guys who can beat you on a given night. That's the sign of a good basketball team. The big thing we've got to do is take away their easy points and make it as difficult as we can for them to score. And then rebound the ball. Their size and athleticism make it a very big challenge for us."

Matta knows Kennedy's coaching background, having coached in the same vicinity while Kennedy was with Cincinnati and Matta was with Xavier (located in Cincinnati) and now Ohio State.

"Coming through Coach (Bob) Huggins' system, Andy's been with some great coaches along the way in his career," he said. "They'll play extremely hard and be very disciplined with what they're trying to do and what they like to do. They do a great job of putting their players in position to be successful."

Matta mentioned the Rebels rebounding prowess, senior center Dwayne Curtis in particular, and he also thinks freshman point guard Chris Warren is quite a talent.

"He's special," Matta said of Warren. "Make no mistake about that. As a true freshman to have the numbers he's had, that's really something. He has the quickness and the speed. He is obviously a tremendous basketball player."

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