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Marla Ridenour on Sports

More Buckeyes basketball: Matta, Sullinger don't mind being No. 2

By Marla Ridenour Published: March 28, 2012

Notes from Ohio State's Final Four press conference Tuesday at Value City Arena.

We’re No. 2
Neither Ohio State basketball star Jared Sullinger nor coach Thad Matta seem bothered by the fact that they’re still not as highly regarded by Buckeye fans as the football program.
OSU opens its first spring practice today under new coach Urban Meyer, while the basketball teams leaves for New Orleans and an appearance in the Final Four. Last week, the most-read story on the Columbus Dispatch’s web site was about Meyer buying a home in Muirfield.

“We’re never going to beat coach Urban Meyer. He brought the most buzz to Columbus, Ohio in a long time,” said Sullinger, a Columbus native. “Big ups to coach Meyer.
“The buzz we brought being known not only as a football school, but as a basketball school is great. But at the same time we don’t want the train to stop at this particular moment. Hopefully we can keep going.”

Sullinger doesn’t believe the sendoff being given the team this evening, when fans have been encouraged to line High Street as the team heads to the airport, is a sign that the program is finally getting its due.

“It’s not really the program, it’s really coach Matta, it’s going to be his second Final Four,” Sullinger said. “Wherever coach Matta is, he wins. You can’t really argue with coach Matta’s recruiting style or his coaching style. It gets people into the right positions to win basketball games.”

Matta seems to be realizing his dream of sharing the sports headlines at Ohio State. He believes this year’s run to the Final Four is a welcome salve for fans who have been hurt by the memorabilia sales scandal that forced football coach Jim Tressel’s resignation and resulted in NCAA sanctions, including a 2012 bowl ban.

“I’ve always felt we could have the best of both at Ohio State,” Matta said. “I know with all the trials and tribulations that have gone on with football over the past year, I’m elated for the university that we’ve got some great things happening. With coach Meyer coming in, things are really stepping up in that regard.

“For our guys’ notoriety, over the course of the last few years, this program has identified itself. I’ve always said this, ‘There is no greater feeling than being on the field when 105,000 people are cheering for the Buckeyes to come out and you’ve got a couple recruits with you. That is the ultimate right there.’ Hopefully we can continue to do our part, I know football will continue to do their part.”

Thomas steps up
The emergence of sophomore Deshaun Thomas as a scoring threat has played a huge part in the Buckeyes’ success. In tournament play, Thomas is averaging 20.3 points, above his average of 16.1 in the 38-game season.

“He’s probably been our most consistent offensive player all season long,” Matta said. “What I’ve seen in Deshaun is trust. He’s developed a great trust in me, he’s developed a great trust in his teammates, he’s developed a great trust in the staff. His biggest challenge throughout the course of the season has been getting his mind focused where it needs to be to play his best basketball.”

Matta can tell by the look in Thomas’ eyes whether he’s focused on the task at hand.
“I had a talk with him before the Syracuse game. I said, ‘You’ve got that look.’ He said, ‘I’m fine.’ I said, ‘Deshaun, you have to trust me. Why would you not trust me now? We’ve come too far together. I know the look,’” Matta said. “When I can get him to smile, he’s in good shape. From that standpoint, he’s more comfortable.”

Asked how to define that look, Matta said as he pointed, “He’ll stare that way. He’s left-handed, so it’s to my right. I’ve got it down. I could take you through every one of these guys and you’d be amazed what we know about them.”

Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft knows the look, too. In Indianapolis during the Big Ten Tournament, Craft called his teammates together during a stoppage in play before free throws were to be shot. Three players were looking at Craft, while Thomas was gazing into the stands. Craft grabbed Thomas by the front of his shirt to get his attention and pulled him into the huddle.

Matta said Thomas, a sophomore, has come a long way from his days at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. Matta recalled taking Archie Miller, his former assistant who is now coach at the University of Dayton, to see Thomas’ performance as a junior in the Indiana Class 2A championship game in 2009 at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

“Leurs got the tip, they threw it to him and he shot a 35-foot airball,” Matta recalled. “Archie had never seen him play. I’m like, ‘Oh, no, it gets better.’ He ended up with 34 points and 15 rebounds and they won the state championship.”

Matta said Thomas has come far from his shoot-first mentality.

“He now takes great pride in defending, he takes great pride in shot selection,” Matta said. “The pass he had I think it was against Gonzaga, where he had the shot in the corner and he threw it to Will (Buford) who was wide open, I said, ‘He gets it, he understands.’
“I could not be happier for the way he’s playing right now because I’ve seen all the hard work he’s put into it and he’s reaping the rewards.”

Putting worry aside
Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft said he doesn’t know if his older brother Brandon, an Army infantryman deployed to Afghanistan on Saturday, has reached his base.
“I know he took off Saturday, sometimes around the game,” Craft said. “He did know that we won. He’s getting inside information somehow. I hope I don’t get him in trouble for saying that.

“I don’t know where he is and I don’t think he’d be able to tell me if we had talked since. My parents I don’t think have talked to him, either.”

Craft said his brother had been previously deployed in the past year, but was injured and returned home.

“The last time he went he contacted us to let us know he was OK and that was about it. We’re still waiting on that,” Craft said.

Asked how he could put it out of his mind while Ohio State is playing, Craft said, “This is the second time he’s gone this year. The first time he got hurt and had to come back. The first time it hit me a little more, I wasn’t prepared for it. When he came back we did a lot more talking about it. He wants me to focus on basketball.

“My teammates are great, they’re right with me every step of the way. I owe it to them to put everything else aside and try to play my best basketball. My brother is really supportive; I’m really supportive of him.”

 

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