Even without Thomas, unwise to doubt OSU

May, 20, 2013
05/20/13
9:51
AM ET

Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn't promote himself.

Winning does that for him. So, too, do all the NBA draft picks who continue to come through Columbus, Ohio.

Deshaun Thomas is about to be added to that list and just completed the pre-draft combine in Chicago. No matter -- Matta and his Buckeyes are back at work, prepping for yet another run toward a Big Ten title.

Count them out because Thomas is gone? That wouldn't be smart. There are certain programs that we expect to be good, regardless of the personnel. We fill out the preseason polls and pencil in Duke, Kentucky, Florida, Louisville, Michigan State, Syracuse, North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona, Wisconsin, etc. Ohio State is as much a part of this list as any other.

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Ohio State's Thad Matta
Greg M. Cooper/US PRESSWIREOhio State has been a model of consistency in the nine years since Thad Matta took over.

The numbers back up the hype.

Matta has won or shared a piece of the Big Ten title five times in his nine seasons, and his Buckeyes won the Big Ten tournament championship in March even though the league was as good as it's ever been. The Buckeyes have been to two Final Fours in Matta's tenure and are coming off an Elite Eight appearance. They've done all of this despite losing a player early to the NBA in six of those nine years.

"I love where our program is right now,'' Matta said. "A lot of this has to do with the culture in the program and what is expected of the guys and how we do things. It hasn't been easy. We've had big challenges. We continue to coach the heck out of the guys we've got.''

Ohio State has always been considered one of the top jobs in the country because it has one of the richest athletic departments, is within driving distance of fertile recruiting territory, and boasts one of the Big Ten's brand names that carries plenty of weight.

There were plenty of successful seasons in the 20 years before Matta arrived, including Gary Williams' tenure and Jim O'Brien's Final Four trip in 1999. But Matta has elevated OSU to another level, a consistency that may be taken for granted at times.

Matta's teams develop and get better as the season goes along. That was certainly true last season after OSU lost at Duke and to Kansas in Columbus. After a 1-3 stretch in league play, Matta told his players in February that that they had to get going if they wanted to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Ohio State returned from a 71-49 loss at Wisconsin to spank Minnesota by nearly the same score (71-45) three days later. The Buckeyes ended up winning 11 games in a row after that embarrassment in Madison, Wis., and were stopped just short of the Final Four by upstart Wichita State.

Despite that mini-skid in the Big Ten, when the Buckeyes lost three of four, they were still a tip-in away from getting their sixth piece of a conference title. That kind of success, winning five Big Ten titles in nine years, was hardly the norm at Ohio State.

So now what?

Well, the Buckeyes can't change who they are, which means Aaron Craft, the gritty and defensive-minded point guard, can't be someone he is not as a senior. Yes, he made a big-time 3-pointer to beat Iowa State in the NCAA tournament. But he averaged 10 points a game and shot 30 percent on 3s last season. He's not suddenly going to become a reliable double-figure scorer and volume shooter who can make three to four 3s a game. That's not who he is or needs to be for Ohio State.

No, the 20 points per game that Thomas is taking with him will have to be dispersed among a variety of players, and the offseason focus is already shifting to ensure that Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and Lenzelle Smith Jr. can produce at a higher level. The need for Amir Williams to be more productive is also a must, and expectations are always high for OSU freshmen -- and so it will be again with Kameron Williams and Marc Loving.

The Buckeyes will be tested early. They drew Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, have a road game at Marquette (the two never got to play their scheduled game on an aircraft carrier last year), and play Notre Dame in the Gotham Classic at Madison Square Garden with three mid-major sleepers in the preliminary rounds (Delaware, North Dakota State, Bryant).

"It's going to be interesting how this all comes together,'' Matta said. "We'll have a much different team.

"Our big focus right now is to look at our guys' weaknesses and improve on them in the offseason. We're hoping they have self-discipline and make the right strides to become better players.''

Editor's Note: For Eamonn Brennan's analysis of Ohio State's key player in 2013-14, click here, and read John Gasaway and Reggie Rankin discuss the potential impact of OSU's incoming freshmen here Insider.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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