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Under Matta, basketball program rising to prominence

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When it comes to analyzing Buckeye basketball, I’ll defer to the elder statesman on the team, David Lighty.

“We’re solidifying ourselves as a two-sport school right now,” said the fifth-year senior forward, in a press conference after the Wisconsin game Sunday.

In a sense, Lighty is right. Despite the on-court success, it has taken until 2011 for Columbus, and the Ohio State campus, to fully embrace the basketball program like its football counterpart.

The most successful team during Matta’s tenure was the 2007 Final Four squad, led by two freshmen — center Greg Oden and guard Mike Conley Jr. — and a group of generally unfamiliar players.

The stud freshmen, part of the acclaimed “Thad Five” recruiting class, left as quickly as they arrived. Fans had trouble acclimating themselves to the rest of the squad as well.

Even though his epic shot against Xavier is as memorable as any in Buckeye lore, guard Ron Lewis was, after all, a transfer from Bowling Green. Fellow starting forward Othello Hunter transferred from Hillsborough Community College.

Lima, Ohio, native Jamar Butler was one of those who could fit in with this year’s bunch, as the 2011 squad features eight Ohioans.

Yet, the Buckeye roots aren’t the only reason fans identify with this group more.

Lighty, a sporadically used reserve in the 2007 Final Four run, overcame a foot injury that stole what would have been the second half of his sophomore year in 2007–08. Now, Matta respects him so much that Matta said Lighty should have a statue outside the Schottenstein Center.

As with Lighty, we have seen the growth of guard Jon Diebler.

A short time ago, he was a freshman shooting 28.9 percent from 3-point range. Back then, I know I wasn’t the only one wondering how he was ahead of LeBron James on the Ohio high school career scoring list.

Now, in his senior season, Diebler is shooting 51.1 percent from beyond the arc — which is 51.1 percent higher than “Le-Brick” James’ career shooting percentage in clutch situations.

Even the notoriously fair-weather OSU basketball fans have started to embrace the cavernous Schottenstein Center and turn it into an intimidating environment.

Credit that to the Nuthouse student section, now behind the benches. It has been rowdy enough this season to redeem its national perception, not to mention the entire student body’s, which was wounded after last year’s flash mob video (and also tainted Journey’s legacy).

Speaking of viral videos, the now-overplayed “Party in the OSU” video adds to the charm of this group.

Freshman point guard Aaron Craft, lovable enough for his lockdown perimeter defense, has become a fan favorite, in part for his Elmo-like squeals in the song (beats Miley Cyrus singing).

Even senior benchwarmer Eddie Days became an Internet sensation — a trending topic on Twitter — after making an appearance against Wisconsin.

The connection this team has with the school and the city is what made it so bittersweet to see it play its final home game of the year. Still — I speak for all Buckeye fans when I say this — I hope they don’t return until after April 4.

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