The 2012-13 Ohio State basketball season didn't exactly cement head coach Thad Matta's legacy in Columbus, but it certainly added to it.
The Buckeyes started the season ranked in the top five of the initial AP Poll despite the fact that superstar Jared Sullinger and steady performer William Buford had both departed from Columbus. The lofty ranking for a team that was surrounded by question marks was a testament to the consistently excellent program that Matta has built at Ohio State.
It all seemed to be business as usual through 10 games. The Scarlet and Gray stood at 9-1, with the lone defeat coming at the hands of the loaded Duke Blue Devils in the nearly unwinnable environment of Cameron Indoor Stadium. In fact, the Buckeyes controlled the first 35 minutes of that contest before Duke ultimately seized victory.
Concerns started to creep in after a disappointing home loss to Kansas, and then Buckeye Nation went into full panic mode following a decidedly mediocre 8-5 start to Big Ten play. Ohio State stood at 1-7 against ranked foes and got completely embarrassed in road games at Illinois and Wisconsin.
Instead of letting the season slip away, Matta shifted his focus to defense and began to allocate the minutes accordingly. Shannon Scott began to see more action in lieu of Lenzelle Smith Jr., Evan Ravenel established himself as the primary big man and Matta experimented with a center-less lineup that put more pressure on opponents and created turnovers and transition opportunities.
The pace of play picked up, and Ohio State was able to take advantage of the athleticism that different combinations of Scott, Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas presented. Throw in Craft’s abandonment of a spotty jump shot for more penetration in half-court sets, and the Buckeyes had the formula to go on an extended winning streak.
Eight wins later, momentum and the Big Ten tournament trophy was on its way back to Columbus, earning Ohio State a No. 2 seed in the big dance. Matta took an offensively challenged squad that was not nearly as talented as many of his past groups and earned a second place finish and conference tourney crown in the nation's deepest league.
It was even more impressive that he did so with a team that was reeling and lacking in confidence midseason after a drubbing in Madison, Wis. Matta experimented with various lineup combinations on the fly and found a way to make it work through a “baptism by fire” approach. The fact that he knows what he will have in place next year because of that approach will certainly help establish more consistency.
Matta also greatly expanded his use of the bench during the 2012-13 season, which is something he has been (rightly) criticized for in the past. There have been a handful of highly regarded recruits that transferred out of Ohio State’s program because they have not seen the early minutes they expected.
The amount of playing time that Scott, Ravenel and Ross received this year may pay dividends in future recruiting. It will be more difficult for opposing coaches to hold a lack of bench minutes against Matta, which could prove crucial as he attempts to land the No. 1 class in the country for 2014.
Taking a good, but not elite, basketball team to the Elite Eight with impressive lineup management and bench utilization is one thing, but what else did the season add to Matta’s paper resume?
For one, it marked the fourth consecutive season that Ohio State reached the Sweet 16. It is the longest current streak in the nation and something that Matta will likely be favored to add to next year.
It was also the eighth straight year that Matta had a player named to the First Team All-Big Ten team, thanks to the efforts of Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft. The next-longest active streak in the conference stands at one season.
Matta also brought home his fourth Big Ten tournament title, which is especially impressive considering the fact that no other school has won more than one since he came to Columbus.
Matta will ultimately need to bring a national title to Ohio State to truly cement his legacy, but his accomplishments with a good (but not great) team in 2012-13 proved that he is not just a recruiter.
He can coach a little, too.