CHICAGO — He is Mr. March, the maestro of the only month that truly matters in college basketball.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta continued to burnish one of the sport’s more impressive late-season resumes with the Buckeyes’ 61-58 victory over Michigan State in Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal.
While Matta has not won a national title, he has done just about everything else and remains one of the surest postseason bets. Matta’s teams are 49-12 in March — the fourth-best winning percentage (80.3) among active coaches — while the Buckeyes ave advanced seven of the last eight league championship games. The ninth-year OSU coach also owns the best conference tournament winning percentage (78.3).
"It’s all coach and the players he recruits," junior guard Aaron Craft said. "He takes the Big Ten Tournament very seriously. He really takes it as a way for us to get in the mentality of, if you lose, you’e going home."
This year likely will rank among Matta’s top coaching jobs. A month ago, a Buckeyes team that lost Jared Sullinger and Libbey graduate William Buford from last year’s Final Four team, was 1-7 against ranked teams after a 71-49 loss at Wisconsin. Now, they enter today’s championship rematch against the Badgers with a seven-game winning streak and an inside track for a No. 2 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament.
Asked if he once questioned whether OSU could accomplish anything of significance this season, Matta took a moment to consider the question.
"You know, I didn’t," he said Saturday night. "When you lose what we lost last year and we’ve got one senior on this team, I thought it was going to be a process. I thought that in some of the games we played early in the season, we had some great stretches. But we weren’t able to put it all together. I don’t know if anybody plays perfect for 40 minutes, but we were playing 22 minutes.
"I think that was my biggest focus, like, if this team can put it together, I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good."
TIME TO EXHALE: Michigan State coach Tom Izzo did find one silver lining Saturday night.
The Big Ten season was officially over.
"I’d play the Lakers tomorrow instead of some of the teams I’ve played recently." Izzo said.
"I am really looking forward to playing somebody else," he added. "I think all the Big Ten teams are. We’ve beaten the heck out of each other. We really, really have, and I think it’s going to help us in the end. ... But yeah, I’m looking forward to playing anybody."
DOUBLE DRIBBLES: Ohio State’s win was its fourth over a top-10 opponent this season. The Buckeyes also beat Michigan and MSU at home and Indiana in Bloomington. ... The United Center crowd of 21,824 Saturday marked the third-most attended semifinals session in Big Ten Tournament history.