Matta's Back To His Old Tricks

By Josh Herwitt - November 22, 2007

NEW YORK -- Thad Matta has been here before.

He's seen this scenario before, and he's been dealing with it for most of his career.

Because if there's one thing Matta has come to do best in becoming a head coach, it's been his ability to rebuild teams in a hurry.

After all, he's been doing it ever since he took over for Barry Collier at then-mid-major Butler seven years ago, when he led the Bulldogs to 24 wins and an appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

And after a stop at Xavier, where he guided the Musketeers to the Elite Eight in 2004, and a big-time leap to Ohio State three years later, he hasn't stopped that rebuilding process.

Because with the kind of NBA talent that his team possessed during last year's run to the NCAA Tournament championship game, the Ohio State coach knew that 2007-08 would look a lot different than 2006-07.

But what was supposed to be another transition year for the fourth-year OSU coach is slowly starting to look reminiscent of last year's squad, one filled with plenty of youth but plenty of growth as well.

So on Wednesday night under the bright lights of The World Famous Madison Square Garden, Matta's team started to look a little more like the days of Greg Oden, Michael Conley, Jr. and Daequan Cook, this time with a new class of talented freshmen taking charge.

"I've never coached a team where you're expected to win every time you step on the floor," Matta confessed after the Buckeyes' 79-65 win over No. 21 Syracuse in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-off.

"And I think that the preparation and having a mix of guys has helped them because in a lot of the same ways when we started the season we were in the exact same boat with one starter back and a slew of new guys. For the four guys that were in the program [last year], those guys have done a great job bringing the new guys along."

But who needs Oden when you have Kosta Koufos anyway?

Koufos might not have the same kind of hype that Oden had built around him last year, but the 7-foot center from Canton, Ohio, showed at certain points during Wednesday night's game against Syracuse just how dominant he could actually be at either end of the court.

Between his game-high 24 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, it was easy to see why the freshman center was rated as one of the best recruits in the Class of 2007. And after the way he played this past summer in taking home MVP honors for the Greek national team, his homeland sure can't wait to have him for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

For Koufos, though, just playing on the big stage that is the Big Apple was enough for only his third collegiate game.

"I'm fortunate enough to play in Madison Square Garden," he said. "Not many people have an opportunity to play on this court. I just wanted to come here and get the victory and we did."

While Koufos and Ohio State got a victory over a Syracuse team that had looked impressive in its early-season victories over Siena and Saint Joseph's, it was Jonny Flynn's inability to knock down shots from the perimeter that ultimately left the Buckeyes heading into Friday's championship game against No. 16 Texas A&M, who topped Washington, 77-63, in the tournament's first semifinal.

"Jonny had real good looks," Boeheim said. "His threes were completely wide open. There was no contest in any of them."

Still, Boeheim understands that's something that's going to happen with freshmen, even ones like Flynn and 6-foot-11 forward Donte Greene, who paced the Orangemen with 21 points, 10 rebounds and a block.

"Jonny has played very steady, he just had a bad game," he continued. "He had one of those games that you're going to have sometimes when you're a young player."

It's certainly a game that Flynn hopes to forget rather quickly with the Orangemen set to face Washington in the NIT Season Tip-off consolation game Friday afternoon, but it's not the only thing that's concerning the 32-year Syracuse coach when it comes to his team's early-season play.

"We just weren't patient enough to get it inside," Boeheim admitted. "I think sometimes players when they win, they tend to think that everything is all right, and when they lose then they realize there's some things we have to do better. That's why we hope these kind of games will help us to understand what we have to do better. That's how you learn."

With the way Flynn struggled all night, finishing with no points, four assists and four turnovers, he might want to consider taking a few tips from OSU's Jamar Butler.

The senior point guard, for one, had a well-rounded game, shooting 5-for-9 from the field for 14 points in addition to five assists, three steals and three rebounds in nearly all 40 minutes of the Buckeyes' win.

"He was so steady," Boeheim said of Butler. "I thought Butler really controlled the game. [He] hit his shots, and he was very steady running the club...It wasn't just him but the two big guys [Koufos and Othello Hunter] played very well. I thought their [entire] team played well."

So who needs Conley, Jr. when you have Butler, too?

That's because while Conley, Jr. was sharing much of the spotlight last season with long-time teammate Oden during the Buckeyes' NCAA Tournament run, Butler was quietly waiting his turn, and now he's showing why he's one of the better floor leaders in the Big Ten and possibly the country.

But Thad Matta's team wasn't supposed to be this good this early. Not with four new starters and a new point guard.

On Wednesday night, though, the Buckeyes showcased that hunger that Matta has brought whereever he he has spent time on the sidelines.

"We're in the process of finding our roles," Matta asserted. "We just got to have our guys understanding."

Because as Matta has learned at Butler, Xavier and now Ohio State, rebuilding teams is a process no matter which way you slice it or dice it.

Posted by Josh Herwitt at 12:37 AM on November 22, 2007
Comments (1)


Thank you for recognizing our "unknown" Buckeye basketball team. The TV announcers had plenty of good things to say about Syracuse and Jonny Flynn, but the Buckeyes were an unranked rebuilding unit. Koufus was from Greece as far as they were concerned. Nobody mentioned he was a graduate of powerful Canton McKinley HS in Canton, Ohio. I think as the season progresses, we will be noticed.

"Go Bucks."

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