In February, I opined (a bit before the curve at that) that this 2012-2013 season may have, somewhat under the radar-ly, been Thad Matta's best coaching job to date at Ohio State, even as they were coming off two consecutive losses to Michigan and Indiana. Four days later Ohio State would be blown out in Madison, and we all were seriously starting to second-guess the wisdom of making such an audacious claim.
Since the 17th, however, Ohio State has not lost. Not once. And with little to no impact talent in the interior (sorry, Evan and Amir, but neither of you are Dallas Lauderdale much less Jared Sullinger), all the pressure has been placed on its perimeter players. Shannon Scott and Aaron Craft are two of the peskiest guards in the nation, but in the Big Ten it's very tough to win without some kind of viable dimension down low.
As much as Ohio State fans have a certain distaste for Bo Ryan, he is a deserving Coach of the Year in the regular season. He made the rest of the league #dealwithit all season long, turned Traevon Jackson into a viable point guard, and got the most out of his deep shooting big men. His system, despite what he himself says, works as it goes against the grain of the other elite teams in the conference who want to push the ball and score points. Michigan and Indiana had no answer for it in the tournament. But Matta, whose OSU squad in my opinion has less talent than the two schools mentioned above, beat Ryan at his own game. The players hit their shots and Wisconsin went ice-cold at the right (or wrong) time, but Matta put his players in the best possible position to win, and for that he should be commended.
Many elite teams this year have a questionable loss. Miami lost to Florida-Gulf Coast. Kansas lost to TCU. Michigan lost to Penn State. The Ohio State incarnations of the past have had some shocking losses, Matta's teams included. Thad's 2012 squad, despite not having the elite talent of past years, has been in nearly every game it's played, and has no losses to non-tournament teams. Ohio State, for the most part, has not fallen into the trap of playing down to its competition on the road, and has won the games it is expected to win all year. With college kids, this is the mark of excellent coaching. It is difficult to get college players to focus on the task at hand – beating, for example, Penn State – and not looking ahead to another game.
One of the issues we talked about all year with this team was the lack of a reliable second scoring option. And along side that issue, DeShaun Thomas struggled late in the season to score efficiently. Luckily, his confidence never wavered, but another player had to step up. Each game during the winning streak, a different player has emerged and contributed points when his team needed them. In the Big Ten Tournament finals, it was LaQuinton Ross. The day before, it was Sam Thompson. Aaron Craft poured in a career-high against Michigan State. That, to me, is the mark of good coaching – to discover who has the hot hand, coordinate your offense to put them in the best position to succeed, and roll with him when DT isn't scoring as efficiently as Ohio State would like. Since it was never going to be the same person, Matta had to go looking for the hot hand each game.
Thad Matta took a team with no big man presence, no defined second scoring option, and took it to a Big Ten tournament title victory. That's not talent – that's coaching. Matta got the most out of his players nearly every game this season, and that's why 2012 is his best coaching job in Columbus.