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Under Matta, Buckeyes rise to prominence

Cody Cousino / Asst. Multimedia editor

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David Lighty, now in his fifth year at Ohio State, has seen just about all there is to see as a college basketball player.

He’s played in a National Championship Game; he’s won a National Invitation Tournament title; he’s won the Big Ten twice; he’s played alongside six NBA first-round draft picks; and his 113 wins are the most of any Buckeye basketball player in history.

His four-plus years and, going back a little further, coach Thad Matta’s more than six seasons in Columbus, have provided the Buckeye basketball program with a consistent level of success that the school hasn’t seen since the 1960s.

And although OSU is, was and may always be a football school, the basketball program is catching up.

“Hopefully they’re looking at it as on the uprise,” Lighty said of the public’s perception of OSU basketball. “When you’re Ohio State, of course everyone thinks of the Horseshoe and the great football tradition, but I think it’s kind of starting to become a dual-sport school.”

Obviously, the basketball program isn’t yet on par with a football program that has won seven national championships and remains a perennial title contender year in and year out. But there is no denying Matta’s success.

When Matta took over the program in 2004, OSU was under NCAA investigation for violations that occurred under former coach Jim O’Brien. The Buckeyes were just 14-16 the year before Matta took over, and when OSU implemented a self-imposed post-season ban for the 2004-05 season. It seemed like a long road for the new coach to restore a once-prominent program.

Matta, however, wasted no time.

Despite being ineligible for postseason play in Matta’s first season with the program, his Buckeyes grabbed the entire nation’s attention when they upset unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Illinois in the final game of the regular season. The following year, OSU went 26-6 and earned the first of Matta’s now-three Big Ten Championships.

Now in Matta’s seventh season as OSU’s coach, his Buckeyes are off to an 18-0 start, the school’s best since 1962, and have ascended to No. 1 in The Associated Press and NCAA/USA Today coaches’ polls.

“I think that, when I came here seven years ago, our goal was to build a Top 10 college basketball program,” Matta said. “Not that you’re going to win the thing every year, but be in the hunt. I’m pleased with where we are.”

Perhaps more impressive than the consistent success the Buckeyes have had under Matta is the number of different players who have played important roles. Of the six NBA first-round picks who played for Matta at OSU, only Evan Turner played more than one season at the collegiate level.

While some — Oden, for instance — seemed like locks to leave after their freshman year from the moment they set foot on campus, others — B.J. Mullens and Kosta Koufos — may have departed for the NBA earlier than expected.

With so many changing faces, it might have been easy for Matta to have a down year and simply chalk it up to a seemingly constant state of rebuilding. But as he has made apparent from the beginning of his tenure as OSU coach, a down year is not something he plans to endure, and he certainly isn’t in the business of making excuses.

“We’ve won three Big Ten Championships with three completely different basketball teams, playing different styles and different ways,” Matta said. “There’s not a lot of programs that have been hit with the early departures like we have either, but that’s part of it and I’m not making excuses for it.

“Probably more, I’m pleased with the kids we have in the program, how they carry themselves and what they’re about.”

Though it seems strange to consider him one of those “kids,” considering the amount of time he’s spent with the program, Lighty has provided Matta with a constant presence in a Buckeye uniform that so many players couldn’t.

When OSU plays at home against Iowa on Wednesday, Lighty will play his 139th game in a Buckeye uniform, tied for a school record. His 499 career rebounds leave him just one short of becoming only the third player in OSU history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists over the course of his career.

Given all that Lighty has accomplished, it’s no coincidence that his career progressed during a period of such success. As Lighty has developed, so has the program, and he said he’s been able to see the evolution.

“Going through all the years, I think we’ve been progressing and progressing each year,” Lighty said. “It’s something that you have to work on and you have to build. It’s not just something that’s going to happen in one year.”

And with his team being a serious contender for what would be OSU’s first National Championship in more than 50 years, Lighty said the legacy he and his teammates have built has a chance to live long after the end of his collegiate career.

“It’s up to us to keep the tradition going and build a legacy of the basketball program, and it’s starting right now,” Lighty said. “As we continue to get better, things will hopefully turn around and we’ll be up there competing with the football program.”

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