Sizable difference between Ohio State, Xavier
Would Greg Oden have landed at Xavier if Thad Matta hadn't left? Not likely, writes Pat Forde, but that doesn't make Saturday's Ohio State-Xavier matchup any less interesting.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- If you want to reduce Saturday's Xavier-Ohio State game to two human metaphors, these are fairly apt:Greg Oden is 7 feet tall.Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThad Matta left Xavier after a run to the Elite Eight to coach Ohio State.
Drew Lavender is maybe 5-7.
Oden represents the gigantism of Ohio State University: a campus of 51,818 students, an athletic department with a $102 million budget -- largest in the nation -- and status as the dominant college sports power in the state.
Lavender represents the undersized pluck of Xavier University: a Catholic campus of 6,665 students, a football-free athletic department with an $11 million budget, a school that is overshadowed in its own city by rival Cincinnati.
In the bigger-is-better world of college athletics, you can look at those numbers and understand why the basketball coach at Xavier might conceivably want to upgrade and become the basketball coach at Ohio State. Which is exactly what Buckeyes boss Thad Matta did three years ago.
The Greg Odens of the world don't go to places like Xavier, no matter what they might say (more on that later). They go to places like Ohio State.
Coaches want to go where the players go, and where the big bucks are earned. Matta, fresh off his second contract restructuring in three years, is pulling down about $2 million a year and has nine more years on his deal.
Xavier is an admirably consistent mid-major program, no matter who's sitting in the coach's chair. But Ohio State is a place where you can chase a national championship.Despite those economic and competitive facts, many Xavier fans don't seem so understanding of Matta's decision to leave Musketeers for Ohio State in 2004. And that has added spice to this round-of-32 game, which has turned into Matta Mania more than a battle to advance to San Antonio.Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesGreg Oden gives the Buckeyes one of the premier players in the nation.
"I think that's a sad approach to the game," said Matta, during an interview session that went about 20 minutes before anyone asked a question about his current Buckeyes team.
Sad, perhaps, but true. Matta and his move up the food chain still resonates as the story here.
The rather sizeable Musketeers fan contingent in Rupp Arena enthusiastically booed Matta on Thursday night when he came out to the floor to scout Xavier up close in its game against Brigham Young. I asked Matta on Friday whether that bothered him, given his 78-23 record there.
"No," he said. "They used to boo me when I coached there. I was very, very accustomed to it."
True fact: Matta was indeed taking some heat in his third year at Xavier, when the Musketeers struggled out to a 10-9 start. What happened thereafter is what eventually landed him at Ohio State.
The Musketeers caught fire, winning 16 of their last 18 games. They gave No. 1 St. Joseph's its first loss of the season, won the Atlantic 10 tournament, then eliminated No. 10 seed Louisville, No. 2 Mississippi State and No. 3 Texas to reach the elite eight. Only a three-point loss to No. 1 Duke kept Xavier out of its first Final Four.
That was enough to catch the eye of former Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger, who eventually hired Matta. But it was Matta's clumsy -- if not downright disingenuous -- exit that probably caused the lingering resentment from X fans.
Matta at first denied he was a candidate for the job he wound up taking. And he never did explain his decision to his Xavier players, some of whom will be in uniform against the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Matta's explanation: He called Geiger to drop out of the running for the job, Geiger talked him into driving the 100 miles from Cincinnati to Columbus to discuss it, and he wound up taking it. Now he'd like to move past that.
"The great thing is, I knew they were in great hands," Matta said of Xavier. "I knew Sean was going to get the job."
That would be Sean Miller, who once shared a cramped office with Matta when both were assistants to Herb Sendek at Miami (Ohio) in the 1990s. They're close friends, and Miller stood up for Matta on Friday, saying he was "disappointed" that X fans had booed their ex-coach.
"If you're truly a Xavier fan, our program goes way beyond one coach," Miller said. " There's been other coaches that left besides Thad."
Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser, to name a couple. But they stayed longer before moving up the food chain.
Matta's three years in Cincy included some early wooing of Oden and his teammate, Mike Conley Jr. Matta got in on the ground floor with them because he previously worked at Butler in Indianapolis, Oden and Conley's hometown.
When asked whether they might have ended up at Xavier, the two McDonald's All-Americans smiled at each other and played along, saying Matta might have been able to sway them into it.
Doubt it. That's much more easily said than done.
Big talents like Greg Oden go to big schools like Ohio State. So do talented coaches like Thad Matta.
The complications come when you have to play the program you left behind.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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