COLUMBUS, Ohio — Even before the first touch foul or vicious dunk of the season, Thad Matta didn't know what kind of a team he had.
His Ohio State squad featured returning All-American forward Jared Sullinger, swingman William Buford and new starting point guard Aaron Craft. Beyond that, Matta was unsure of what to expect even as publication after publication picked the Buckeyes to win the Big Ten. Almost everybody had the Buckeyes listed among the top three teams in the land before they ever played a game.
"At times I felt like people were trying to set us up because there were so many unknowns about this basketball team," Matta said Monday. "To put this team in that light, I guess we were grateful. But I knew as a coach that as we got started this team had a long, long, way to go."
Now, the only destination it has left is New Orleans for the Final Four. The Buckeyes (31-7) meet Kansas (31-6) in Saturday's nightcap, after neighborhood rivals Louisville and Kentucky square off in the first semifinal. The title game is Monday night.
It's hard to paint the Buckeyes as anything other than bullies. They've got a roster chock full of McDonald's All-Americans and Mr. Basketball winners in their respective states. Yet Matta knew he had a lot of work to do to form a cohesive unit out of disparate parts.
The first problem he faced was a lack of grizzled veterans. Buford was the only senior on the roster. The only junior, backup big man Evan Ravenel, had never played a game in an Ohio State uniform after transferring from Boston College. That meant that 85 percent of the roster was freshmen or sophomores. Clearly, even though Sullinger and Craft had seen substantial minutes as freshmen, the Buckeyes still didn't have a forceful leader on the court, with the quiet and sweet-natured Buford hardly the fiery front man they needed.
Next, Ohio State was without three longtime starters who had graduated from the previous year's team, which started 25-0 and spent most of the season at No. 1 while winning the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and soaring to a No. 1 seed. David Lighty was the guts of that team, which went 34-3 before being upset by Kentucky in the round of 16. Another departed senior, Jon Diebler, left as the top 3-point shooter in conference history. And Dallas Lauderdale, who started but was always quickly replaced by Craft, was a smart big man who specialized in defense and helped keep Sullinger out of foul trouble.
The Buckeyes seemed to have overcome those shortcomings for most of the season. They won their first eight games, including a one-sided roasting of then-No. 3 Duke in Columbus, 85-63. But then, with Sullinger out with back spasms, the Buckeyes lost at Kansas on Dec. 10, 78-67.
Ohio State lost to Indiana and Illinois on the road, but still led the Big Ten heading into a showdown with No. 11 Michigan State on Feb. 11. The Spartans physically challenged the Buckeyes while ending their 39-game home winning streak, relying on their toughness in a 58-48 victory in which Ohio State starters Deshaun Thomas, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Buford combined for just 14 points.
That touched off a span of three losses in five games. Suddenly, a team that many thought might be a national contender was barely in the conference race. There were letters to the editor of the local newspaper disparaging Matta as a coach. Callers to sports talk shows questioned the heart of "prima donna" players.
The Buckeyes noticed how many people were leaping off the bandwagon.
"I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we were the underdogs, we weren't good enough, (weren't) mentally strong enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature — we heard it all," a still angry Sullinger said after the Buckeyes beat Syracuse 77-70 in the East Regional final on Saturday. "When we were going through that slump in February, everybody was saying this basketball team was kind of on a downhill. We heard negative comments. I want to thank y'all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that."
That bad spell actually was the best tonic. It came down to the players accepting who they were and playing together. They came to realize that each one didn't need to win the game single-handedly if they all contributed.
"Midway through the season, I think we had to do some soul searching," said Craft, the Big Ten's top defender. "We had some good times, and we definitely went through a rough patch where we lost three of five. I don't think any of us had really dealt with that before. The coaching staff did a great job. They stayed positive with us and stuck with it, and I think we did a good job as a basketball team, understanding we still could accomplish what we wanted to."
The Buckeyes won two difficult road games to close out the regular season — on last-second shots by Sullinger at Northwestern and Buford at Michigan State — to grab a share of the Big Ten title with Michigan State and Michigan.
Then, in the conference tournament, unlike in their earlier meeting in Columbus, the Buckeyes showed how tough they were by battling on even terms with Michigan State before falling in an epic title game.
In the NCAA tournament, they had moments of concern but always seemed to come up with a big shot or defensive stop when most needed.
In his eighth year with the Buckeyes after short but equally successful stints at his alma mater, Butler, and Xavier, Matta has shown a propensity for seeing the big picture.
When there were wrinkles along the way, he always tried to remind them of what was ahead.
"You guys are thinking about Oct. 18th, and I'm talking about March 18th," he would tell them.
Now, after a season of peaks and valleys, they're all focused on the same prize.