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COLLEGE BASKETBALL Matta turning tempest into teapot at Ohio State



Published: Wed, January 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Buckeyes coach is restoring credibility to a program tainted by scandal.

COLUMBUS (AP) -- Some of Thad Matta's closest friends wondered why he would trade a comfortable situation as the coach at Xavier for a tempest at Ohio State and a roster full of slackers and prima donnas.

Matta's Musketeers came within a play or two of the Final Four a year ago, while the Buckeyes went 14-16 with players who weren't inclined to play hard or guard anybody. What's more, Ohio State was under the NCAA microscope for infractions that allegedly occurred on the watch of the fired Jim O'Brien.

Six months later, Matta's Buckeyes are 12-5 and have surprised many heading into tonight's game against Minnesota.

Slaying the naysayers

"We came into this year with people highly doubting us," junior captain and leading scorer Terence Dials said.

"We've exceeded a lot of people's expectations already, which is kind of sad."

Much of the turnaround is attributable to Matta's unending ability to wait out the thunderstorm for the eventual rainbow.

"Everybody was telling me what these guys can't do," Matta said.

"That's why we opted to come in with a clean slate. I like the progress this team's made -- the work ethic they have, the attitude they have."

Most of what he knew about the team he gleaned from those who had watched the Buckeyes' lackadaisical play and selfishness on the court. Finally, Matta said he had heard enough.

"I finally stopped them and said, 'Only tell me what they can do, because that's what we're going to be consumed with,' " Matta said.

O'Brien stumbled through a difficult final season at Ohio State. It began with neck surgery that caused him to lose his voice.

Then the Buckeyes got off to an awful start and never caught up.

There was no cohesion on the team, with guards continually misfiring on wild 3-pointers and the big men unable to offer much resistance to the brawny frontcourts in the Big Ten.

Soon after the season ended, O'Brien met with athletic director Andy Geiger and acknowledged he had given $6,000 to the family of a recruit in 1999.

Six weeks later, he was fired.

A month after that, Matta made the trip up Interstate 71 from Cincinnati to take over the fading Buckeyes.

Pride Buckeyes' motivator

The NCAA problems still aren't in the rearview mirror. Last month, Geiger and university president Karen Holbrook announced that the team would be held out of postseason play to mitigate possible sanctions. More penalties are expected, although no one is sure when they may come or how severe they may be.

The Buckeyes, though disappointed by that decision, have set winning the conference tournament as a goal. After that, they know their season -- and for some, their careers -- will end.

But they also know they've proven some things to those who sat through O'Brien's bitter final season.

"Guys are just tired of having that rep, of being a team that doesn't play hard or of being a team that can't do this or can't do that. As players, we all knew we could do it," point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham said.

"Coach [Matta] really lit our fire. He just let us do our thing. He let guys show their strengths."




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