Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Sitting amid a sea of reporters in a locker room at the United Center in Chicago, Aaron Craft downplayed the magnitude of the seed Ohio State had just received for the NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes had won the Big Ten tournament an hour prior to the selection show unveiling the NCAA Tournament bracket Sunday night, in which OSU was placed as a No. 2 seed in the West Region.
OSU’s junior point guard – the conference tournament’s Most Outstanding Player – said he was pleased with the way his team is playing, winning eight straight contests. Once NCAA Tournament play starts though, which for the Buckeyes will be Friday at 7:15 p.m. in Dayton against No. 15 seed Iona, nothing a team has accomplished really matters, Craft said.
“It feels good, but seeding doesn’t mean a ton once you get there,” Craft said, draped in a scarlet Big Ten tournament champion T-shirt following OSU’s 50-43 win against Wisconsin.
Standing roughly 10 yards away from the 6-foot-2 floor leader outside the Buckeyes’ locker room was a person that could better understand what it says about a program to be a high seed: Craft’s coach.
Thad Matta has been at the helm of the OSU men’s basketball program for nine seasons including the current one. In the last eight years, the Buckeyes have been a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament six times. Is that an accomplishment the 45-year-old feels is worthy of recognition on its own?
“Hell yeah it is,” Matta said, surrounded by a separate herd of media members.
The Buckeye coach knows what it’s like not to be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Craft doesn’t. In his three years at OSU, Craft’s team has been a No. 1 seed, a No. 2 seed and a No. 2 seed.
In Matta’s first year at OSU, the Buckeyes failed to make the NCAA Tournament. The same was true in 2008. In 2009, OSU was a No. 8 seed.
This OSU team’s placement in the NCAA Tournament bracket is a result of the Buckeyes surging after a blowout loss at Wisconsin Feb. 17. They haven’t lost since then.
“We went through some battles through the season, some ups and downs, but we never gave up on each other, and I think this is so special for us as a team, as a coaching staff and for Ohio State University,” said junior forward Deshaun Thomas.
OSU’s seed, though, is potentially more so a reflection on Matta and the program that he has built.
The Buckeyes reached the Final Four last season as a No. 2 seed, but the team lost its two go-to players from that squad in two-time all-American Jared Sullinger and the program’s third all-time leading scorer, William Buford. When OSU reached the national title in 2007 before losing a majority of its players, the Buckeyes didn’t have a chance to reach college basketball’s mountaintop the following season. OSU wasn’t selected for the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
“With this basketball team, and I’ve always said this, when you lose a player, you lose two great players from a team, the next year is extremely challenging,” Matta said.
There is no guarantee that the Buckeyes will make it back to the Final Four this season. But due to their high seed, OSU might have as good a chance as any squad in the 68-team field to play in Atlanta.
Matta said he didn’t feel as though this season would turn out like 2008.
“I’ve loved this team the whole way through. I didn’t know how talented we’d be or how many we’d win, but I loved going to practice with them and watching film and all those things,” Matta said.
Thanks largely to himself and the reload, not rebuild program he is supplanting in Columbus, Matta gets to coach this team for another week, and potentially three more.
If OSU beats Iona Friday, the Buckeyes will face the winner of the game between No. 7 seed Notre Dame and No. 10 seed Iowa State Sunday.