Just 15 minutes after learning that seven Buckeye basketball players were honored with conference awards for their play throughout the regular season, the attention of Ohio State fans was quickly diverted to the OSU football program, when Yahoo! Sports reported that Jim Tressel failed to disclose information regarding NCAA rules violations that led to the suspension of six OSU players. A day later, OSU recommended that Tressel be suspended for the first two games of the 2011 season.
So is the life of a college sports fan in 2011.
But, while ESPN’s ticker and sports fans’ Twitter feeds have been filled with details regarding Tressel’s transgressions and Bruce Pearl lying to the NCAA about hosting illegal recruiting visits at his house, OSU men’s basketball coach Thad Matta has provided Buckeye fans with a team they can enjoy on the court, without being worried about it off the court.
When Matta arrived at OSU in summer 2004, the basketball program was hardly something to be proud of, as violations — including a player receiving improper benefits and committing academic fraud, which occurred under former coach Jim O’Brien — left Matta with a program facing an uncertain future, and a postseason ban for the 2004–05 season.
Having now won at least a share of the Big Ten title in four of his six years at OSU, Matta didn’t let the obstacles left by the O’Brien era stand in his way.
“In 2004, when I walked in that gym, that was the plan: to build this into a top college basketball program. I think as you look at the things that have been accomplished over time, hopefully we’re heading in that direction of the success,” Matta said. “Not that you’re going to win every game or anything like that, but just hopefully we’re doing it the right way and making the university proud is what I’m after.”
The full potential of Matta’s vision for his program has been realized with the Buckeyes having finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country, and they appear poised to become the first OSU basketball squad to win a National Championship since 1960.
But the Buckeyes’ likability extends past their billing as the nation’s No. 1 contender.
Star freshman Jared Sullinger has impressed OSU fans not only with his post moves and rebounding capabilities, but also his humble demeanor, which showed Monday when he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
“I was honestly surprised to hear I was named Freshman of the Year,” Sullinger said. “There are a lot of talented freshmen in the Big Ten.”
Sullinger’s statements are a far cry from contemplating retirement, which OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor did on his Twitter account, after receiving an honorable mention for Big Ten honors following the 2010 season.
The humbleness on this team extends past Sullinger to classmate Aaron Craft, who called his OSU freshman-record seven steals Jan. 19 against Iowa a “team stat.”
It’s not hard to see where the two freshmen’s team-first attitude comes from, once you meet their mentors.
Whether it’s Dallas Lauderdale sacrificing his playing time, William Buford passing on the NBA Draft to return to school, Jon Diebler using a nationally televised interview to sincerely compliment Wisconsin moments after beating the Badgers by 28 points, or David Lighty viewing as positive an injury in 2008 that allowed him to be a part of this year’s team, it isn’t hard to find examples of the types of players Matta envisioned back in 2004 being building blocks of his program.
Matta has achieved all of his success at OSU — on and off the court — without committing any NCAA violations, unlike Tressel, who now joins the three most recognizable players in his career — Pryor, Troy Smith and Maurice Clarett — as Buckeyes who were suspended for committing violations in the past 10 years.
Yet, Tressel remains employed, mostly because a referee threw a late flag in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl that led to the first OSU National Championship in more than 30 years. Apparently, if you bring a National Championship to OSU, you become untouchable.
Buckeye fans should hope Matta earns the same immunity in a few weeks.