LEXINGTON, Ky. - When he assembled a glitzy collection of blue-chip high school talent that included seven-footer Greg Oden as part of Ohio State's current freshman class, Buckeyes' coach Thad Matta was given credit for being something of a recruiting genius.
After a player he did nothing to get - Ron Lewis - led top-ranked Ohio State back from the dead yesterday and on to a 78-71 overtime win against Xavier in the NCAA tournament's second round, Matta had to admit he was not always such a great judge of player potential.
"Ron was one of three players we signed that first year, and the other two transferred and left," Matta said. "He just showed up on our doorstep when I got there. I didn't know anything about Ron, but thank goodness he showed up."
Lewis, who scored 27 points in the win yesterday, including a deep 3-pointer with two seconds left in regulation that tied the game and forced overtime, had decided to transfer to Ohio State before Matta was named to replace Jim O'Brien as head coach of the Buckeyes.
After sitting out a year as a transfer, over the past two seasons Lewis has grown into the role that saw him provide significant scoring punch down the stretch yesterday as Ohio State came back from 11 points down with seven minutes left.
But Matta said the leadership the Buckeyes have received from the Columbus native in the final month of the season, and the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments that followed, has been worth more than Lewis' scoring.
"The leadership he has provided, especially down the stretch, has just been off the charts," Matta said.
Lewis went 4-of-5 from 3-point range against Xavier and hit all seven of his free throws in 35 minutes of action.
"My role is to get these guys together every game and do what I do on the court, which is get fouls and make shots and help this team win games," Lewis said.
FRIENDS FIRST: Xavier coach Sean Miller was Matta's top assistant when Matta was the head coach of the Musketeers, the job he held before coming to Ohio State three years ago. When Matta was introduced to the crowd at Rupp Arena yesterday, he was deluged with boos from the slightly partisan Xavier crowd, fans who are still bitter that Matta left Xavier.
Matta said Ohio State's dramatic comeback win over left him with bittersweet feelings.
"This was a very difficult game today," Matta said. "I'm as happy as I've been, but at the same time as sad as I've ever been. I couldn't be happier that he [Miller] was in the round of 32. But I feel bad for him. The job Sean Miller has done is incredible."
Matta called any attempts to build up the game as a showdown between him and his friend a "sad approach to a storyline." The two also served on the same staff at Miami more than a decade ago.
"Sean and I shared an office at Miami of Ohio, and I consider Sean one of the best friends I have in life," Matta said. "I think it's unique, but when you're in this profession long enough, situations are going to arise when you coach against friends."
THE OMEN: Matta knew his top-ranked Buckeyes had dodged a bullet, climbing out of a hole to force overtime with Xavier, and then winning the game 78-71. He hopes the close call benefits his team down the line.
"I'm a super positive guy, so I'm saying this game is a good thing," Matta said. "We knew when the brackets came out that Xavier was going to be a really tough matchup for us. The reasons why are exactly what you saw out on the court today. Fortunately for us, we were able to get through it."
RAYMOND'S DAY: Xavier sophomore B.J. Raymond, who went to St. John's Jesuit, finished with two points in 12 minutes of action, hitting one of three shots. Raymond had nine points and two rebounds in 14 minutes of action in Thursday's first-round NCAA win over BYU.38.0486 -84.50032