Thad Matta loves the University of Dayton Arena. Really.
Even though Ohio State hasn’t fared all that well in Dayton since he’s been the head coach — never made it through the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament intact — it’s still the place for his fondest college basketball memory.
“When I was a player, I may have had my grandest game ever in this building,” Matta said, being interviewed in a room just up a walkway from the court. “Yes, I say that jokingly, but I hit a last-second shot.”
That left-handed shot for Butler — coming out of a timeout in which his coach listed the other four players as scoring options — is still clear in Matta’s mind. So are those less-joyful days in front of the 13,409 blue and red seats, when he was calling plays during timeouts for the Buckeyes. Second-seeded Ohio State (26-7) is only 1-2 in Dayton during the NCAA tournament under Matta.
Still, when it comes to bad moments in the building, those Buckeyes have nothing on Iona (20-13), their opponent tonight. The Gaels had the biggest meltdown in NCAA tournament history on that court last year.
Iona pulled out to a 25-point lead over BYU late in the first half in a First Four game, then squandered all of it and lost 78-72 for a place on the wrong side of tournament history — biggest blown lead. Only four players remain from that team, and they tried hard not to let those bad feelings creep back when they returned to the arena on Thursday.
“It’s not something that I try to think about,” senior Lamont Jones said. “At that point in time, we lost. I took what I could from it. But it’s not something that fuels my fire. It’s a totally different team, totally different identity, personalities, nine new players.”
They couldn’t forget about it completely. Their coach won’t let them.
When the new-look Gaels were struggling to come together early in the season, coach Tim Cluess reminded them of that NCAA disappointment and what they needed to do to get a chance to go back to the tournament and give a better showing.
“We used last year’s game as motivation to drive us toward this year,” Cluess said. “It gave us a chance to return. Had that not happened, I don’t think we’d be sitting here right now.”
Iona doesn’t really have a good NCAA tournament memory. The Gaels are 1-8, but the lone victory — 84-78 over Holy Cross in 1980 — was later vacated because of NCAA violations.
An upset of the Buckeyes on their close-to-home court would be one of the biggest in a season that’s been full of such surprises.
“The way I said it to them is basically: Somebody here, more than one team in this tournament are going to pull off upsets and going to be the team that everyone is speaking about a week, two weeks down the road,” Cluess said. “Why not us? Why not all of us dream a little bit right now?”
The Buckeyes would settle for a nondescript win in an arena that felt pretty cozy on Thursday.
They started the day with a practice on their home court back in Columbus. They got on a bus for the one-hour, 15-minute drive west on Interstate 70 and south on Interstate 75. Hundreds of fans at UD Arena were waiting to watch their public workout — yes, one of them started the O-H-I-O cheer even before the Buckeyes took the court.
All the comforts of home.
“Yeah, this is amazing,” guard Aaron Craft said. “We practiced this morning in our own gym, which is great, got on the bus and got over here really quickly. It was quicker than I thought it was going to be, too.
“We’re just really excited to see what kind of crowd we can get out there.”
A couple of wins would make for a nice, short bus ride home on Sunday and give Matta another UD Arena story to tell, along with the one about a last-second, left-handed shot in a Butler uniform.
“Please don’t make a big deal out of that,” Matta said. “That’s my one shining moment in college basketball. We can talk about my high school career. I was a better high school player.”