Tonight Ohio State plays Kansas in one of the Final Four national semifinal games. The winner gets to move on to the national championship game; the loser will celebrate a great season but also wonder about what might have been.
A lot has been written about the match-ups in the game. How will Jared Sullinger, who missed the first game between the Buckeyes and Jayhawks in December, fare against shot-blocking center Jeff Withey? Will cat-quick Jayhawk Tyshawn Taylor be able to play his game notwithstanding the suffocating defensive efforts of Aaron Craft? Who will guard the Buckeyes’ versatile Deshaun Thomas, and who will try to stop Jayhawk Elijah Johnson?
One match-up that hasn’t been talked about much is the match-up of coaches. Kansas is led by Bill Self, one of the best coaches in the game. He has won a national championship at Kansas and has done a great job of getting this team — generally viewed as having less pure talent than prior Jayhawk juggernauts — into the Final Four. I thought Self outmaneuvered North Carolina’s Roy Williams last weekend as both coaches dealt with the loss of UNC’s point guard. In the second half Kansas went to a triangle-and-two defense that seemed to knock the Tar Heels off kilter and left them flummoxed for the rest of the game.
Ohio State’s Thad Matta, on the other hand, seems to be under-appreciated by many people. They acknowledge that he is a great recruiter, and they applaud his courageous way of dealing with the challenges posed by his physical condition, but they downplay his “Xs and Os” skills, criticize him for not using his bench, and say he doesn’t use his timeouts effectively.
I don’t get this criticism, and think this year’s NCAA Tournament demonstrates that Coach Matta can match up with anybody. He has this year’s team motivated and ready to perform, also also has shown a lot of flexibility in how Ohio State has played its opponents. Against Gonzaga, which had a strong 7-footer in the middle, he moved Sullinger around and away from the basket for some uncontested jumpers. Against the fabled Syracuse zone, he changed the positions of Thomas and Sullinger and Ohio State made interior passes that led to some easy baskets; he also recognized that Lenzelle Smith, Jr. was not the focus of Syracuse defensive plans, and in the second half Smith helped to lead the Buckeyes to victory. In every game, Coach Matta and his staff have put the Buckeyes in the position to win — and that is what you want from a coach.
When the ball tips tonight, we’ll see how Coach Matta has decided to deal with the match-up issues posed by the fine Jayhawk squad. Before the game begins, however, Ohio State fans should take a moment to thank Coach Matta and his assistants for a job well done — and then hope that they have done a similarly good job in preparing for tonight’s tilt with the Jayhawks.