WASHINGTON – That look on Thad Matta’s face Wednesday night, just what was it? Hard to put a finger on it. Some fatigue, certainly. Some bewilderment, maybe some pain, for this was the end of a long and odd day, in a long and odd season.
In the morning, the Ohio State athletic director had issued a vote of confidence on his behalf. That was the good news for Matta. The bad news is that anyone thought he needed one. In the evening, the Buckeyes were knocked out in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Not just knocked out. Pushed out, muscled out, bullied out, by Rutgers. As in last-place Rutgers.
“I’m not sure our minds were where we needed to be to compete in this basketball game,” Matta said. He mentioned a palpable lack of toughness.
“Tonight we weren’t at the level we needed to fight, for whatever reason. March Madness, all that stuff, I told the guys, this is where players play. This is where players make money.”
Then the Buckeyes went out and were rolled. Why? Matta answered with three words a coach never likes to use, at least not in public.
“I don’t know.”
It is, indeed, a baffling curve in the road for the accomplished coach who has won nine Big Ten titles – between the regular season and conference tournament – and gone to two Final Fours. When lists come out identifying the best active coaches never to win a national championship, Matta is routinely included.
But at 17-15, Ohio State will miss the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year after going nine times in Matta’s first 11 seasons. The 7-11 league record was his first under .500. The Buckeyes played the likes of Virginia and UCLA tough, but also lost at home to Florida Atlantic.
Hence this, hot off the desk of athletic director Gene Smith:
“While we are not currently where we aspire to be with our performance on the court, Thad understands better than anyone that component has to improve. I am confident in his leadership to return the program to the winning ways we have all enjoyed during his 13-year tenure.”
Smith noted Matta’s 73.4 winning percentage, his standing as Ohio State’s all-time leader in victories, his postseason appearances, his general solid reputation.
Matta appreciated the gesture from his boss but said, “I think it’s ridiculous we have to do stuff like that.” He decried the outside turbulence that swirls around the landscape when times are tough. “It’s amazing what people do nowadays. This is a very fickle business that we’re in ... people choose the negative side of things. It’s what they do. Obviously gas is poured on the fire. It’s sad that sports has come to where you’ve got to do stuff like that.”
So what happened to Ohio State? “We just haven’t had the right mindset all year,” guard C.J. Jackson said. Matta mentioned the frustration of a season such as that. “Just from the daily battles that we’ve had, just in terms of getting guys ready to play,” he said. “Rough one, no doubt.”
Bingo. That was the look on his face Wednesday. The look of a coach who, no doubt, had just been through a rough one.
So ended the Big Ten tournament’s first-ever day in Washington.
This isn’t exactly traditional Big Ten country. Not with the White House 11 blocks away. And Wednesday at the Verizon Center was certainly not your garden variety first round.
Rutgers, in its third year in the Big Ten, won a tournament game for the first time. “We learned how to compete this year,” coach Steve Pikiell said in a rasp, hoarse from the night’s work. “We got Rutgers going in the right direction.”
Penn State, a team on a five-game losing streak, advanced as well, starting three freshmen and beating Nebraska in overtime. “A major breakthrough for this program,” coach Patrick Chambers called it. “Penn State basketball is inching closer, for sure.”
Ah, Nebraska. The team that beat the Big Ten champion (Purdue), beat one runner-up (Maryland), lost in overtime by one point to the other (Wisconsin), and still managed to end up the 12th seed in the league. The Cornhuskers started 3-0 in league play for the first time in 41 years, then lost 13 of the next 16 games against Big Ten opponents.
Coach Tim Miles suggested Wednesday that his team just ran out of gas on the roller-coaster ride. “No doubt,” senior Tai Webster agreed in the locker room after the game. “You can just look around the room. Guys are worn down. It’s been a slippery road. I’m proud of the guys the way we stuck at it. It’s so easy to cop out and for attitudes to go out the window. We came to fight most nights.”
And then there were the Michigan Wolverines, who never even got to Washington. Their team plane aborted its takeoff back home and skidded off the runway. Unhurt, but possibly a tad rattled, they had to reschedule for a 7:30 a.m. departure Thursday, 4 ½ hours before they are due to play Illinois in the Verizon Center.
So it was an interesting first day for the Big Ten tournament in this strange land. At the end, Thad Matta just looked spent.