Sometime within the past two weeks, the head coach for No. 2 Ohio State addressed his undefeated team. With the Buckeyes now sitting at 16-0 heading into tonight's road contest against Michigan (6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network), Matta gave his players a new goal.
Simply put, he told them to learn through winning. The lessons his players were gaining from being tested in games in which they were ultimately successful were just as beneficial as those that could be gained from actually suffering a loss.
Buford said it was the first time he had heard such a message.
"I always heard (that you) learn from losing," he said. "That was new."
Matta's hope is that his team is learning as it continues to win while entering the meat of its Big Ten schedule. The Buckeyes capped the non-conference portion of their schedule with a 13-0 record and were seldom tested along the way.
When OSU opened conference play with a Dec. 31 road contest against Indiana, it led the Big Ten in eight statistical categories including scoring offense, scoring defense assist-to-turnover margin. Now after hard-fought wins against Iowa, Minnesota and the Hoosiers, the Buckeyes do not lead the conference in any category in league play.
Scoring is down (82.6 points per game to 75.0), opponents are scoring more (66.3 points to 53.8) and the assist-to-turnover ratio has dropped from +1.75 to +1.20. So while the road has gotten bumpier for OSU, it has not been enough to derail the team from its winning ways.
It is Matta's hope, then, that this team is learning what it needs to be learning from these recent tough games.
"My point was we hadn't lost yet and I knew we had to play better basketball," the coach said. "I'm telling the guys we can stay content with the way we're playing and winning or we can learn our lessons even though we won the game."
Freshman forward Jared Sullinger, who had a stellar prep career and is unbeaten as a collegian, said he has learned plenty of lessons just since conference play began.
"Scouting is going to be to a ‘T,' " he said. "You've got to understand that every team knows your plays, every team knows your defense, everybody knows which go-to moves you're going to do, where to double you at … you've just got to understand that as a basketball player you've got to make basketball plays. That's something that we did down the stretch against Minnesota."
After pushing their lead to 18 points in the second half Sunday against the Golden Gophers, the Buckeyes wound up holding on for a three-point victory. Matta said the team played 32 minutes of solid basketball but added that he is still looking for OSU to put it together for a full game.
It was a refrain frequently voiced even while the Buckeyes were winning their non-conference games by an average of 28.8 points per contest. However, Matta said it is not the same early-season mistakes that are holding his team back from playing a complete game.
"Everything is relative to each game because styles are so different, tempo is so different," he said. "It's so hard to draw a comparison to one particular thing. You just can't draw the parallels as much as we'd like to do it. That's the beauty of basketball: you can never predict exactly what's going to happen or where it's going to happen or how it's going to happen."
Although he is preaching that his players learn through winning, Matta said the two do not always go hand-in-hand.
"Sometimes you may win by 20 points but you may be madder than you've ever been at your team or not pleased with the way that you played," he said. "I subscribe to the theory of, ‘What's next, (and) how do we try to get ourselves ready to play the best basketball we possibly can regardless of wins and losses?' "
The origin of the phrase remains up for debate. Tuesday, Matta said he heard it from former OSU football player Mike Vrabel. A linebacker for the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, Vrabel's season ended Sunday with a first-round playoff loss. Matta said the two spoke Monday.
However, senior forward Dallas Lauderdale told reporters that Matta had first delivered the message to the team following the 85-67 win against the Hoosiers. Meanwhile, Sullinger said he first remembered hearing it at the start of Monday's practice.
"I'm giving Mike the credit for it because Bill Belichick told his team that and he's a lot smarter than I am," Matta said. "I don't want the credit. It sounds a lot better coming from (Vrabel)."