Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta has said more than once he rarely watches college basketball besides his own team’s games.
But after the Buckeyes dismissed Purdue, 67-49, Saturday night, Matta said he went home and flipped on the television to watch the game between then-No. 19 Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders upset the Cowboys in Texas that night, 65-61, but the arguably biggest news of the game was that Oklahoma State sophomore guard Marcus Smart shoved a fan late in the game, losing his cool after he said the fan called him a “piece of crap.”
Smart was suspended Sunday by the Big 12 for three games for his actions.
Matta addressed the incident Monday, a day before his No. 22 Buckeyes (19-5, 6-5) are set to host their archrivals, No. 15 Michigan (17-6, 9-2), at 9 p.m.
“I was actually watching that game the other night when it happened. I was like, ‘Wow,’” Matta said. “It made me think just in terms of some of the things I’ve heard people say over the years. I didn’t think about punching them or going after them. I know I’m not made of cardboard either, but I think from the standpoint of, there’s such a fine line there.”
Matta went on to say that he’s heard nothing but good things about Smart, calling him a “phenomenal kid,” and admitted some of the things he’s heard from fans over the years have gone beyond what is expected to show support for their team.
“It’s something I hope all universities will take more of a precaution just in terms of what’s been said,” Matta said. “Because it can get downright brutal.”
Senior guard Aaron Craft — who has been the subject of plenty of heckling on the court throughout his more than three years at OSU — said he does his best to ignore negative things fans say.
“It’s always tough in the heat of the battle. Emotions are running high especially if things aren’t going well, all it sometimes takes is one thing to kind of make you snap,” Craft said Monday. “It’s been going on for a while … (but) I don’t think it goes on unless as a team, we’re doing something right.
“It doesn’t affect me as much — (opposing fans) can yell all they want but the best thing that we can do is find a way to have more points than they do at the end of the game, have the gym be quiet.”
Tensions will likely reach that high point Tuesday between OSU and Michigan, as the game has heavy implications as far as the Big Ten standings are concerned — the Buckeyes sit three games behind the Wolverines, who are tied for the conference lead with No. 9 Michigan State. Matta said his players understand the game’s magnitude.
“I think they know that. But I think that they would tell you our whole concern moving forward is about us and really trying to simplify what we’re doing and getting this group of guys to play their best basketball, not because it’s this team or not because the standings say this,” Matta said. “It’s just that’s what we need to do in this league to have a chance to win.”
Junior center Amir Williams agreed, saying the focus has to be on OSU to come out strong because it is a big game.
“We can’t really worry about other teams as much, we gotta fight our own race,” Williams said Monday. “This is a big one for us tomorrow … you can’t come out lackadaisical tomorrow like it’s just some other game.”
The Wolverines lost reigning National and Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke to the NBA after last season, and have been playing without sophomore forward Mitch McGary because of a back injury that only allowed him to play in the first eight games of the season. Michigan still ripped off 10 straight wins after falling to then-No. 1 Arizona at home Dec. 14, and a big part of the season’s success has been sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, who currently sits fifth in the conference in scoring with 17 points per game.
“He’s expanded his game. He took the spring and summer and found a way to make himself more than one-dimensional. And that makes it a lot tougher to defend him,” Craft said of Stauskas, who was widely known as just a shooter before this season. “Obviously with the way he’s shooting the ball, you have to be careful with how much you help and things like that, but the way he’s kind of putting the ball on the ground, he’s passing the ball really well now, too. So you can’t really try to rely and take one thing away from him.”
The Wolverines were on the wrong side of an 85-67 score against then-No. 17 Iowa Saturday, a game in which the Hawkeyes shot a blistering 10-17 from beyond the arc. Even though Michigan is coming off a loss, Craft said the Buckeyes have to be ready for a challenge straight from tipoff because of the rivalry.
“There’s always something special about playing Michigan,” Craft said.