Doubts about 12th-year coach proving unfounded … Loving scores 27 points as Buckeyes down Illinois … Ohio State overcomes early trouble in season to post sixth straight win.
COLUMBUS — They lost to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech in non-conference play at home.
They were blasted at UConn on the road in a game that was over at halftime.
There was growing unrest among Ohio State basketball fans during a four-game losing streak, which is understandable considering the standard the program has set. But when the grumblings about coach Thad Matta began to surface, that’s when you wanted to shake some people and say, “Folks, get a grip.”
After some early wobbles, the Buckeyes look to be back on track and seem like a safe bet to become Matta’s 16th straight 20-win team and his 12th at Ohio State.
The senior-less Buckeyes knocked off Illinois, 75-73, last Sunday for their sixth consecutive win, improving to 2-0 in the Big Ten and 10-5 overall.
Trailing 61-59, 6-foot-7 forward Marc Loving, the team’s lone junior, scored on a drive, hit a 3-pointer and made one of two free throws for a 65-61 edge with 2:21 to go.
Illinois (8-7) cut it to 72-70 with a 3-pointer, but Loving made two foul shots with 6.6 seconds left to seal it.
“Earlier in the year, we took some bumps, but we still had confidence in each other that we were going to get better,” said Loving, who had a game-high 27 points. “We’re gaining ground every day.”
I like this team. There is skill and athleticism in the frontcourt. The Buckeyes had nine blocked shots, including five by freshman Daniel Giddens.
The Buckeyes also had a 42-33 rebounding edge.
JaQuan Lyle looks solid at point guard. The 6-5 freshman played only two minutes in the first half because of foul trouble but finished with 14 points and five assists in 22 minutes.
“You emphasize going into a game to be smart about how you attack a shot-blocking team, but there were a couple where Giddens and those guys came out of nowhere and gave great effort to block the shot,” said fourth-year Illinois coach John Groce, a former Ohio State assistant.
As for the rebounding disparity, Groce said: “They’re good at it. They’re big, they’re long. They’ve got three 5’s (centers) that are 6-10 and 240-plus pounds. They’re good on the glass.”
Among the Buckeyes’ conquests during their winning streak is a 74-67 win over Kentucky in New York.
“By no stretch of the imagination are we where we want to be, but there was some uncertainty, and the thing we had to do was to get these guys to believe in each other,” Matta said. “The butt-kicking we took at UConn was a great teaching experience for us in terms of how they attacked us, and we could never fight through it.
“You go back to Kentucky, one of the great things is we found a way to win a basketball game. That’s what happened tonight — we had to find a way to win a game, and guys did that.”
He added: “There’s a little bit more belief in what we’re trying to do, and a little more knowledge in how we have to do it.”
Nobody is going to suddenly project the Buckeyes as an NCAA tourney team after starting conference play with wins over Minnesota and Illinois, but I could see them hovering near the top of the standings in what looks like less-than-dominant year for the Big Ten.
Even if they fall short, those who were calling for Matta to move on forget what Buckeye basketball was like before he arrived.
Matta’s predecessor, Jim O’Brien, produced one Final Four trip, after which he tried to temper expectations by saying any fans looking for the team to reach those heights on a regular basis need to start rooting for Duke. Nice.
He left in disgrace amid NCAA violations.
Before that, Eldon Miller had them wallowing in mediocrity for years. Even the beloved Fred Taylor went out with a whimper, going 6-20 in his final season in 1975-76.
Matta has gone to the NCAA tourney in nine of his 11 years, missing his first season when the Buckeyes were ineligible (thanks, Obie) and settling for an NIT runner-up finish the other time.
They went to the 2007 NCAA title game before being knocked out by two-time champ Florida. They have another Final Four run, an Elite Eight appearance and two Sweet 16 showings under Matta.
He has a winning record against every Big Ten team except Michigan State, against whom he’s 11-12.
Here’s perhaps an even more remarkable feat: In 11 years, he’s won either the Big Ten regular-season title or tourney crown nine times.
He’s just 48 years old, but I don’t look for him to be a coaching lifer like a Mike Krzyzewski . Matta has a chronically bad back, and surgery to relieve the pain left him with a right foot that doesn’t function properly. He sits on a raised chair during games and walks with a limp.
But he’s still a terror on the sidelines, pumping his fist and exhorting his players.
He’ll get the most out of this team — just as he always does. And my guess is Buckeye fans will be satisfied with the results.