Now, Matta and Dials have put the Buckeyes back on the Big Ten map.
Ohio State visits Wisconsin for a 6 p.m. tip tonight boasting a 12-3 overall record and 1-1 mark in conference play a year after finishing 14-16 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten. These Buckeyes received a new coach in July, then learned in early December that they were banned from postseason play—a one-year prohibition that Ohio State placed on itself as a result of an alleged recruiting violation by former coach Jim O'Brien.
Ohio State has taken these potential pratfalls in stride and played very well this season.
"We've got a great group of kids from character and just their commitment to wanting to be a better basketball team," Matta said.
Deservedly so. Dials and Matta have been the headliners in Ohio State's revival. Dials is a star in the making, a 6-foot-9, 255-pound junior forward who can physically overpower opponents in the post and beat them with an assortment of skilled moves.
Dials took a medical redshirt two seasons ago and averaged 10.4 points and 6.6 rebounds last year. This season, he has been a one-man wrecking crew in the paint, averaging 16.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
"He's becoming more versatile," Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard said. "He was always one-dimensional in terms of which way he would turn in the post."
That is no longer the case, according to Gard. Now, Dials will set up on either block and can make post moves with either hand from either direction.
"Now he can go both ways; he can score with a jump hook, he can score with a drop step, score on the left block, score on the right block," said Gard, who was responsible for compiling the Badgers' scouting report on Ohio State. "He's just better."
"Terence Dials I think is the most improved big man in the league," Gard said.
Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan takes it a step further.
"He is definitely one of the most improved players in the country, not just in the league," Ryan said. "It just goes to show you what hard work can do."
Dials is not alone. As a team, the Buckeyes have shown marked improvement, a fact that has not surprised Wisconsin. The Badgers' coaching staff is familiar with Matta and his staff from their days coaching at Butler and Xavier.
"I expected that they would be successful," Gard said. "This is not a shock at all to me. They've done exactly what I thought they would do even before I got a chance to watch them on film in the last week or so.
"In the back of my mind when they took over in the summer we knew that was going to be a huge benefit to the Big Ten."
The biggest difference at Ohio State?
"They've always had pretty good players but I think their confidence level is the biggest thing that I see that they're doing," Gard said. "Thad does a great job of instilling that confidence."
Matta credits his players.
"Those guys come in every day and seem very committed to this program and try to do the best they can," Matta said. "I've told them that's all I'll ever ask is that we lay it on the line ever day. Whatever happens, happens but we are not going to negotiate effort. They've done a good job with that."
Dials' inside presence is a fine compliment to Ohio State's excellent perimeter shooting. The Buckeyes are making 42 percent of their 3-pointers, the second highest percentage in the Big Ten. Senior guard Tony Stockman has already made 116 triples in 44 games at Ohio State after transferring from Clemson, where he made 155 in two seasons.
"He shoots it from unlimited range but they are at the right time," Gard said.
Stockman, who has made 42 percent (43 of 103) of his 3-point attempts this season, is not alone. Five other Buckeyes are shooting at least 42 percent from 3-point range and have made at least 11 triples. Junior-college transfer Je'Kel Foster, the Buckeyes' top reserve, is 31 of 70 and junior guard J.J. Sullinger is shooting 50 percent (12 of 24).
"They are able to surround Dials with four guys that can shoot it from deep and that makes him hard to guard," Gard said. "They play off ball screens and penetrate and kick and they got Terence inside and he's a load. He gets isolated a lot in one-on-one."
Quality shots may be tough to come by when the teams hit the floor Tuesday. Wisconsin is second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (59.0 points per game) and leads the conference in 3-point field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 29 percent. Ohio State is second in 3-point defense (32 percent) and overall field goal defense (40 percent).
Said Gard of the Buckeyes: "They have some guys that can guard people one-on-one but it's collectively, five-on-five is what they try to make it.
"They play off each other defensively as well as they do offensively."
What: Ohio State (12-3 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) at Wisconsin (10-3, 1-1)
When: Tuesday, Jan. 11 at 6 p.m. Central
Where: Kohl Center (17,142), Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: The game will be televised nationally by ESPN. It can be also heard live on the Wisconsin Radio Network (WIBA 1310 AM/101.5 FM in Madison)
Series Notes: Ohio State leads the all-time series 80-58 though UW holds a 39-30 edge in Madison. The Badgers have won five of the last seven meetings, including the last three at the Kohl Center.