The Ohio players
With a bevy of blue-chip Buckeyes, Matta may be homing in on a title
CLEVELAND — It’s The Ohio State University, as we all know.
But the The has even more resonance with this particular bunch of Buckeyes. If coach Thad Matta’s top-seeded club wins the NCAA Tournament, it will be with a core group of players who are Buckeyes through and through.
Talk about having a solid recruiting base: Six of the seven players who have played all but 59 of the team’s 3,600 minutes, and who have scored all but 12 of the team’s 1,341 points, come from Ohio.
Now that’s truly representing The Ohio State University.
The important thing, of course, is that some of them, one in particular, can really play this game.
For as good as some of them are, the thing that separates Ohio State from most other teams is a 6-foot-9-inch, 280-pound inside force by the name of Jared Sullinger. Matta is grateful for many things in this life, we can presume, but very high on his current list would be the fact that Sullinger played his high school basketball at Northland in Columbus, which is not only the state capital but also the location of The Ohio State University.
Playing for State U doesn’t seem to matter a lot in our little commonwealth, but it has long been a lure in Ohio. Consider that the core of the great Buckeye teams from 1959-62, winners of one national championship and twice runners-up, were all Ohio-bred. Fifty years later, not much has changed.
In addition to Sullinger, key native Buckeyes for Matta’s 32-2 squad are senior David Lighty (Cleveland), senior Dallas Lauderdale (Solon), senior Jon Diebler (Upper Sandusky), junior William Buford (Toledo), and freshman Aaron Craft (Findlay). Seldom-used sub Jordan Sibert hails from Cincinnati. The only interloper who gets playing time is freshman forward Deshaun Thomas, who comes from an alien nation known as Fort Wayne, Ind.
Sullinger, in case you didn’t know, is a freshman, but a very precocious one, both on and off the court.
And now these Ohio kids begin the tournament journey in an atmosphere that will resemble just one more home game. The two great perks the NCAA provides for a high-quality team such as Ohio State are a favorable seed and a pair of first-weekend games reasonably close to home. Quicken Loans Arena will essentially be hosting an Ohio State pep rally when the Buckeyes take the floor against poor Texas-San Antonio in a 1-vs.-16 game at 4:30 this afternoon.
“It’s funny listening to them,’’ Matta says. “They’re all Cavs fans, and to have the opportunity to play in here . . .
“I’ve recruited those guys for a long, long time, and for Dallas and David, a lot of trips up [Interstate] 71, dating back to when I was at Xavier, as crazy as that sounds.
“And to bring those guys home and in the NCAA Tournament, I think, is very fitting. Because they’ve given so much to our program, and they’ve given so much to the university that I’m excited for them to have this opportunity.’’
“It’s special, especially it being our senior years; it’s our last go-round,’’ confirms the 6-5 Lighty, a fifth-year senior who played in the 2007 national championship game (he would later injure his left foot, necessitating a medical redshirt for the 2008-09 season). “And coming back to where we all started playing the game of basketball, in front of our family and friends, and now to pretty much end our career with them being able to see us is something you really can’t describe.’’
Lauderdale, a 6-8 shot-blocking center, is in accord.
“Just to echo what David said, it’s pretty special,’’ Lauderdale says. “To be able to come back here and play 20, 25 minutes away from friends and family is very exciting.’’
Football comes first Being a gargantuan state university, and one that may have the largest athletic staff of any school in the land, Ohio State figures to be good in a lot of sports. But certain schools are forever identified with football.
When you think of Texas, you do not think first of Kevin Durant. When you think of Alabama, you don’t think first of Antonio McDyess. And when you think of Ohio State, there are only a few of us who think first of Jerry Lucas. It’s also a fact that there is no tuba player dotting the “I’’ in “Ohio’’ at Buckeye basketball games.
Some coaches couldn’t handle the inherent Big Brother/Little Brother relationship at those type of schools. Matta isn’t one of them.
“When I was at Xavier [from 2001-04], I was probably the biggest college football fan you could ever find, because there was nothing to do on Saturdays,’’ says Matta. “And I became the biggest Ohio State fan.’’
So now he takes the Ohio State job, and it doesn’t take long to understand how the school works.
“I still remember the first [football] game I went to,’’ he says. “Cincinnati kicked off to us, and we went four and out, and when the punter was running on the field, 105,000 people were booing. And I remember saying to myself, ‘What have I got myself into?’ ’’
What he learned was that football coach Jim Tressel, whatever may be his foibles, has no problem sharing.
It comes with certainty that the football coach will always be the king and the basketball coach will always be the crown prince — but a crown price who will always have the resources necessary to win championships. It’s a pretty safe statement that the same is true at Texas. Alabama, we’re not so sure.
“I love where we are as a ‘football/basketball school,’ ’’ Matta insists. “I think it’s the perfect combination. And I do remember we were in Coach Tressel’s office one day, maybe my first year there, we were with a recruit, and he said, ‘Our goal is to win the national championship in football and basketball the same year.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s going to happen.’
“And I’ll be darned, Year 3 we both played for it and didn’t get it done.’’
Few weaknesses Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and friends couldn’t prevent Florida from winning its second consecutive NCAA basketball title in 2007, but most observers feel Matta has a better chance this year.
There is no top-flight team with more solid veteran experience. There is no team with a better inside-outside duo than the oft-unstoppable Sullinger and senior marksman Diebler, who is the all-time Big Ten 3-point shooter.
There may not be a better all-around defender than Lighty. There is surely no more menacing shaved head/beard countenance than the one belonging to Lauderdale.
And no one doubts that Matta can coach. He won at Butler (his alma mater), he won at Xavier, and he has won big at Ohio State (188-56).
The Buckeyes aren’t invincible. They have no viable backup for Sullinger, so any foul trouble could be a major problem. Beyond Sullinger, who averages 10.1 boards a game, they don’t rebound very well. Some people also think there will be an inordinate amount of pressure on Craft, the freshman point guard.
But there may not be too many close games if Sullinger runs amok. The lad from Columbus is an old-fashioned, low-post butt-kicker. Most modern bigs want to dazzle you with their shooting range. Sullinger has attempted just six threes (making two). He obviously knows who he is.
The Buckeyes as a group likewise know who they are: they’re Buckeyes.
“We’re not just doing this for ourselves,’’ Lighty says. “We’re doing it for our towns and our state.’’
Too big a burden to assume? We shall see.