Ohio State Basketball: Thad Matta's Greatest Victories
Thad Matta is arguably the best thing to happen to Ohio State’s basketball program since the 1960s when the school won its only national title and dominated its opponents behind Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.
During his time in Columbus, Matta has made two Final Fours, won five Big Ten championships, taken home three Big Ten Tournament titles and even won the NIT in the one year he failed to lead a postseason-eligible Buckeye team to the NCAA tournament.
He has won at least 20 games every year of his career and more than 30 in three of his eight seasons in Columbus.
What’s more, Matta has gradually shifted the culture of football-crazed Buckeye Nation into one that pays attention to more than just football recruiting during the winter and early spring.
Matta has won 221 games during his Ohio State tenure (with a .773 winning percentage). However, some of those wins were more significant than others.
Read on to see which ones were the biggest and most memorable.
March 6, 2005 vs. Illinois
In Thad Matta’s first season at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were not eligible to play in the NCAA tournament thanks to violations committed by the previous coaching staff.
As plenty of baseball teams can tell you at this time of year, if you can’t compete for a championship yourself the next best thing you can do is spoil the fun for someone else.
Illinois came into Columbus as monumental favorites and was trying to complete a historical and undefeated regular season behind the star power of Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown.
Everyone expected the Illini to roll. Everyone, that is, except the Buckeyes.
Illinois controlled the majority of the game, but Ohio State went on a second-half spurt to cut the deficit to two in the final seconds.
That’s when unlikely hero Matt Sylvester (who scored a career-high 25 points) sank a game-winning three-point shot, and the student section rushed the floor to celebrate about as significant of a win as a program can have when it is ineligible for the postseason.
What’s even crazier is Sylvester saw it coming earlier in the week (h/t ESPN):
The other day I was in the gym with Brandon and I said, 'Wouldn't it be unbelievable to score 25 points and hit the game-winner against Illinois?’ This feels so good I can't describe it.
March 5, 2006 vs. Purdue
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This game against Purdue wasn’t exactly as memorable or exciting as the other games on this list.
After all, Ohio State cruised to a 76-57 victory over a Boilermaker team that was well below .500.
But the meaning of this game for the Buckeye program went well beyond the box score. Ohio State had just emerged from a damaging NCAA investigation that left the program ineligible for the postseason the year before.
The basketball team was an afterthought in the Big Ten title race as the year began, and even its own fans were looking more towards the next season when superstar recruits Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr. would come to campus.
However, Thad Matta led this senior-led group (which included Terence Dials, J.J. Sullinger, Je’Kel Foster and Matt Sylvester) all the way to a Big Ten championship, which was clinched with this victory.
"It's a great life lesson for these guys," Matta said via ESPN. "If you commit to something and stay the course, anything's possible."
February 25, 2007 vs. Wisconsin
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Sure, it was an ugly game, but for everyone in attendance in the Schottenstein Center, style didn’t matter one bit.
Ohio State was No. 1 in the ESPN/USA Today poll and No. 2 in the AP poll. Wisconsin was No. 2 in the ESPN/USA Today poll and No. 1 in the AP poll.
Safe to say, there was plenty of hype going into the contest. In fact, it was the first time in the prestigious history of the Big Ten that the top two teams in the nation had met.
Mike Conley drove the lane and hit a floater over the outstretched arms of the defense with a mere four seconds left to send the Buckeyes to a 49-48 victory. Wisconsin’s final attempt was swatted away and an exhilarated Buckeye Nation stormed the floor to celebrate with the newly-crowned Big Ten champion Ohio State basketball team.
March 22, 2007 vs. Tennessee
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
Ohio State, led primarily by freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley, had been a dominant force all season long and was on a collision course to play the defending champion Florida Gators in the national championship game.
Tennessee, who the Buckeyes had defeated earlier in the year, was a mere formality that needed to be dispatched in the Sweet 16 while more prominent challenges waited.
But Bruce Pearl’s sharp-shooting Volunteer squad, led by Chris Lofton, jumped out to a commanding 17-point lead at halftime behind three pointers and a tenacious full-court press.
Matta implemented a formidable press break in the locker room, and the Buckeyes dominated the second half to a tune of 53-35. Oden swatted away Tennessee’s final shot and Ohio State survived and advanced.
Buckeye fans everywhere finally breathed a sigh of relief, not caring for the moment about the extra gray hairs that would show up the next morning.
March 31, 2007 vs. Georgetown
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It was Thad Matta’s first-ever trip to the Final Four, but the story was all about the dynamic matchup in the post.
Freshman superstar Greg Oden was supposed to bang bodies in the paint with Roy Hibbert as they battled for rebounds, dunks and easy put backs for 40 minutes.
And then the whistles started to blow.
Oden picked up two fouls in the game’s first three minutes and had to spend the rest of the first half on the bench hoping his less-hyped teammates would come through.
That is exactly what they did.
Mike Conley scored 15 points, dished out six assists and even snatched five rebounds as the Buckeyes simply outlasted Hibbert (who scored 19 points of his own) and the Hoyas 67-60.
Even though the national title game a couple days later did not go as they would have liked, Matta and Ohio State still capped off one of the most memorable basketball seasons in Buckeye history with this victory.
Dec. 22, 2007 vs. Florida
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This game didn’t mean as much as many of the other games on this list from a national or Big Ten standpoint.
But it meant something to Ohio State fans everywhere.
Simply put, the scarlet and gray needed to beat Florida in something just to start the healing process in Buckeye Nation.
After all, the previous year had seen the school’s basketball and football teams reach the national championship games in their respective sports, only to be thwarted by the Gators in each.
Michigan will always have the penthouse reserved in the Buckeye house of hate, but Florida was slowly making its way up the list in the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
To the delight of Buckeye fans, Ohio State cruised to an easy double-digit victory in this one. Of course it wasn’t enough to make up for the national title losses, but at least it was something.
January 12, 2010 at Purdue
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Things weren’t looking great for the Ohio State basketball team when it traveled to West Lafayette. The Buckeyes were 1-3 in conference play and significant underdogs on the road.
To make matters worse, Purdue jumped out to a 12-point lead by halftime and Robbie Hummel couldn’t seem to miss a three-pointer.
However, the second half would prove to be one of the most important second halves in the entire nation in the 2009-2010 season.
Evan Turner scored 23 of his 32 points in the second half, including 14 of the Buckeyes’ final 18. He also finished with nine rebounds, three assists and one steal.
Turner’s coming out party spurned him to one of the best individual seasons in Ohio State history, one which was capped off with the National Player of the Year Award.
Furthermore, the Buckeyes used the momentum from this comeback to climb all the way to the top of the Big Ten standings.
March 12, 2010 vs. Michigan
This might not have meant as much as some of the games on here that clinched Big Ten titles or spots in the Final Four, but it wouldn’t be a list of memorable Ohio State victories without at least one triumph over Michigan.
The Buckeyes were the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, but had their hands full with the Wolverines. Every time the scarlet and gray seemed to pull away, Michigan made another run to close the gap.
The Wolverines finally took the lead with less than three seconds left, but National Player of the Year Evan Turner felt like staying in Indy for a couple extra days. He hit an incredible shot from just inside midcourt that effectively killed two birds with one stone.
The Buckeyes were moving on and the hated Wolverines were going home.
March 6, 2011 vs. Wisconsin
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Ohio State didn’t lose very often in the 2010-11 season. In fact, the Buckeyes only lost twice and finished the regular season with a 32-2 record.
One of those losses was at Wisconsin.
But the actual loss to the Badgers took a backseat in the eyes of many Ohio State fans to Bo Ryan’s reaction to Jared Sullinger’s claim that he was spat on by a Wisconsin student who rushed the floor following the game.
“All I know is, we won the game,” the Wisconsin coach said via ESPN. “Deal with it.”
Buckeye fans took it somewhat personally and showed up for the rematch with rally towels that had the words "deal with it" written on them.
That’s exactly what Ryan had to do following the 93-65 beatdown the Buckeyes laid at the hands of his Badgers. Moreover, Ohio State was the outright Big Ten champions following the game.
November 29, 2011 vs. Duke
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Rarely is a sporting event outside of a certain rivalry game with the school up north discussed at length on Ohio State’s campus in late November.
But this wasn’t the typical early-season cakewalk game that basketball fans had grown accustomed to.
The Buckeyes were hosting the Duke Blue Devils in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and the Schottenstein Center was ready to rock. In fact, this game may have been the loudest that the stadium had ever been for a basketball game.
In fact, the only time Buckeye fans stopped screaming and cheering was to boo LeBron James as he took his front row seat.
Jared Sullinger poured in 21 points and fan-favorite Aaron Craft scored 17 points and dished out eight assists. The game was over before the Blue Devils even knew what hit them, and Ohio State won 85-63.
"I've had my butt kicked before," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said via ESPN. “Tonight my butt's sore."
March 4, 2012 at Michigan State
Six of the past seven Big Ten championships have been won or shared by Ohio State and Michigan State.
Naturally, somewhat of a rivalry has developed between the two schools.
Never was it clearer how close the competitive nature has become between these two programs than the 2011-12 season.
The Spartans came into Columbus earlier in the season and stole a game from Ohio State, but the Buckeyes were looking for revenge in East Lansing in early March.
Tom Izzo’s squad jumped out to a double-digit lead early, but Ohio State gradually chipped away until the game was tied with two seconds left. While many were expecting Jared Sullinger to take the final shot, William Buford drained the buzzer-beater that gave the Buckeyes a share of the Big Ten crown.
Yes, the Spartans got revenge in a nail-biter in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, but this was a significant and conference-championship clinching victory for Thad Matta nonetheless.
March 24, 2012 vs. Syracuse
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Ohio State was supposed to be in the Final Four when the 2011-12 season drew to a close.
After all, the Buckeyes were considered one of the best teams in the nation as the season started and did nothing to disprove these notions with an early beatdown of Duke.
But a minor slump late in Big Ten play (three losses in five games in February) had some questioning Ohio State’s chances in the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 seed in its region.
However, the scarlet and gray would have none of it.
The Buckeyes rolled through games with Loyola, Gonzaga and Cincinnati before meeting No. 1 seed Syracuse. Despite the fact that the game was tied at halftime, Ohio State gradually pulled away from the Orange and won by seven (although the final score was closer than the second half actually was thanks to poor free-throw shooting down the stretch).
Thad Matta was off to his second Final Four.