Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
CHICAGO-Rather dispassionately, Deshaun Thomas recounted the experience that was being on the receiving end of one of Ohio State coach Thad Matta’s most-fiery sideline eruptions.
After eventually routing Nebraska Friday night, Thomas smiled and tiptoed through the moments of the first timeout of the Buckeyes’ first outing in the Big Ten tournament at the United Center in Chicago.
Trailing the tenth-seeded Huskers, 9-4, Matta abruptly called for 30 seconds of pause amid a tidal wave of momentum crashing down on them in just the fourth minute of play against an apparently overmatched Huskers squad.
His face burnt and flushed, Matta appeared exasperated at what might’ve been the obvious juxtaposition between the team in front of him-one that looked lethargic and disinterested-and the one that finished the regular season with five straight wins.
After chucking up an errant shot before falling the fool to a pump-fake on the other end of the floor, Thomas trudged back over to the OSU bench.
In his words, Thomas said Matta was “kind of” mad; said he told him to get his mind right; told him to calm down and re-caliber himself.
That, to Thomas’ credit, is the truth-but certainly not all of it. Sure, Thomas laid out the moment’s central pillars, but opted not to divulge into its particulars.
Things like Matta’s colorful usage of words that rhyme with “duck” and “spit,” or how he bellowed and barked at the first-team All-Big Ten selection as if to verbally gnash his teeth into him.
But maybe most of all, the OSU coach did something with Thomas he hadn’t all season-he benched him before the first media timeout.
“I kind of said ‘What, coach?’ and he said ‘Don’t talk back,'” Thomas said.
After being publicly chastised by Matta for the first time in as long as he can remember, Thomas conceded that he probably earned it.
“I kinda felt like, you know, I was struggling. I fell for that pump fake,” Thomas said. “And, also, I took a bad shot at the beginning and that’s just me being anxious.”
And while Thomas was hardly the only Buckeye with the jitters, he became the focal point of Matta’s larger frustrations.
“The thing is, I would try the best that I could to warn our guys that this could happen. You know, I felt like we needed a timeout to say, ‘Hey, this is what I was talking about last night in the final meeting, it’s what I talked about this morning after the film session,'” Matta said following the game.
“If you’re not ready to go, you’re going to get embarrassed and we were getting embarrassed out there … it was just the little things that we weren’t doing that was bothering me.
“We had 18 hours to prepare and these things were important and we didn’t do them to start the game. Our body language wasn’t good. Guys were complaining … we’re not good enough to play like that.”
Aaron Craft said part of Matta’s critique stems from his competitiveness.
“Whatever it is, if we are in a game, we are going to play as well as we can hopefully and we are going to try to win,” the junior guard said. “We are not here to just kind of have fun and be in a new city.”
So Matta made an example of arguably his best player, one who the Buckeyes have leaned on during the grind of the regular season.
Part of it, Thomas said, is trying to live up certain expectations, the kind that often come with being the conference’s leading, most-potent scorer.
At a press conference Wednesday in Columbus, Thomas said he felt like he could weave together a series of impressive performances like he did last March in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
By his own admittance, Thomas played like a man whose mind dabbled in other things than the task at hand.
Sipping Gatorade out of a little paper cup with sweat already pouring down his face, Thomas said his short-lived vacation to the sideline served him well.
“I went to the bench and was more relaxed,” he said. “And I came in and I thought I was that guy who made that tournament march last year.”
And while OSU’s success might correlate with Thomas, it might equally hinge on what he calls the contrast between “younger” Deshaun and “mature” Deshaun.
The difference between the two, he said, perhaps was most evident in handling Matta’s outburst.
“If he yelled at me (before), he probably yelled at me and I still go back in the game,” Thomas said of past confrontations with his coach.
“Younger Deshaun probably would’ve flipped out. He knew that I was going to be mature, and knew I was gonna calm down and be ready when he called my name.”
To Thomas’ credit, that’s how it played out, as he totaled 19 points and nine rebounds against Nebraska.
But the brief period of being Matta’s punching bag might also be a defining one-one that suggests the kind of deeds that will be expected of this Buckeyes team not just in Saturday’s semifinal game against Michigan State, but in the days and weeks to come.
While Matta might’ve encouraged lightheartedness in the tournament in years past, Thomas said the mood now feels more sober, more reflective.
“He’s taking it seriously because he knows this team is something special,” Thomas said.
That might be in vain if OSU can’t beat a Spartans team that won the conference tournament last season.
If Matta has to openly scourge another player to ignite the Buckeyes against a team like Tom Izzo’s, it could prove costly.
Against Nebraska, though, all it took was a kick in the pants from Matta to get OSU rolling.
Maybe that’s all it’ll take Saturday and the rest of March, too.