CLEVELAND – Ohio State coach Thad Matta understands well the challenge the University of Texas-San Antonio will face Friday afternoon at The Q.
At Western Carolina in 1996, Matta served as one of the assistant coaches for a No. 16 seed that took the floor against a No. 1 seed. Carolina, like UTSA, was making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
And what did those Catamounts do?
Well, theirs would be no Rocky remake. They would lose a 73-71 heartbreaker to No. 1 Purdue. They would become yet-another No. 16 seed to take the first airplane home.
Now, the win-loss ledger for No. 16 seeds reads: 0-104. Yet Matta can remind people how easily that record could be 1-103.
“It was funny —that team was so unique because we started the season, I think, 0-6,” Matta said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “We lost to a Division II team.”
UTSA didn’t start as slowly, but a stretch of 0-5 basketball had the Roadrunners gasping to find their legs. At 8-8, they didn’t look like a team with even NIT aspirations. Somewhere along the way, they found their game, and they are in the NCAA Tournament now —a No. 16 seed that’s poised to meet Matta’s No. 1 Buckeyes.
The Roadrunners (20-13) are similar to the Catamounts, which might give Matta a reason to fret —and to also reflect on what that Western Carolina team came close to doing: knocking off a No. 1 seed.
“They were just sort of, ‘Hey, let’s go out and have fun,’” he said. “They were a tough group of kids. They put themselves into a position to have a chance to win the game.”
The Roadrunners seem bent on taking the same approach. Or so coach Brooks Thompson and his players were saying. They all think the team is ready for the challenge it will face in the Buckeyes, and Matta has no reason to doubt that he’ll be in a tough game.
His experience at Western Carolina makes it impossible for Matta to forget that fact. Besides, he’s watched enough of March Madness in his life to know that the craziest of things can happen to very, very good teams. More than a few higher seeds have been sent packing early because of a surprising loss to a lesser seed.
To date, that lower seed just hasn’t been a No. 16.
While no one sees that happening to the Buckeyes (32-2), Matta isn’t willing to bank on his team just showing up and finding that the Roadrunners have surrendered. They, too, want to make something grand happen here.
No doubt a NCAA championship is the most impossible of dreams, but one game played to perfection might be within the Roadrunners. Such a performance came from the Catamounts, with the odds no better for them than the odds are for the Roadrunners.
Matta doesn’t need to hammer that point home to his Buckeyes. Not now, not in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, not against a No. 16 seed. Not to a No. 2 seed either.
His No. 1-seeded Buckeyes know. They’ve been learning this simple lesson from, as Matta put it, day one: They must keep their approach the same.
“I tell them as we’re going, I don’t care what happens in other games,” he said. “I don’t care who beats who or who plays well. We’re going to focus on the 40 minutes that we’ve got a hand, and these guys have done a great job of that now.”