Nick Fasulo

Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta cuts down the net after defeating the Syracuse Orange in their men's NCAA East Regional basketball game in Boston

Thad Matta, Buckeyes embrace Ohio St. as a ‘football school’


Thad Matta is an honest man.

Aside from that one time back in 2004 when he told the entire Xavier University community he was staying at the Atlantic 10 school, only to sneak out in the middle of the night and head up to Columbus, Matta is a guy that doesn’t seem to shy away from telling it like it is.

In just this season, he’s been openly critical of Deshaun Thomas’ lack of defense and got out in front of the idea that the Buckeyes were a shell of their December selves in February.

When the discussion of being a basketball coach at a football school is broached, Matta just smiles, and doesn’t mince words.

“I’ve always felt that we could have the best of both at Ohio State,” Matta told the last weekend. “With all the trials and tribulations that have gone on with football over the past year, I’m elated for the university, probably most importantly, that we have some great things happening.”

There have been a number of instances, in both print and television, where Matta has openly embraced the notion that he’s almost never front and center of the proverbial Ohio State marquee.

Here’s a story that’ll make you cheer for Matta

What once was Jim Tressel’s role as unofficial face of the university has now been passed off to Urban Meyer, and there were few people thinking that the school’s head basketball coach should claim that distinction.

But eight years into his tenure at Ohio State, whether it be piggy backing off a brand name or taking full advantage of his school’s athletic budget, Matta has delivered results: five Big Ten regular-season titles, four Sweet 16 appearances, and now two Final Fours; all with the help of 10 McDonald’s All-American’s who Matta and his staff recruited has truly turned football-first school into a pretty well-oiled basketball machine.

It’s cliché, but you could argue that Matta took the Ohio State job with the idea that if he can build it, they will come.

“We’re still a football school, according to people.  We’ll live with that,” said Jared Sullinger “I think this program, ever since coach Matta came, he changed it around from what it came from.”

Ohio State is a big school, actually the third largest in the country in terms of undergraduate enrollment. With thousands of sports-crazed fans running around Columbus and outposts around the state yelling “hang on sloopy”, there’s plenty of people to support basketball, and plenty of money to help keep it growing and turning into a national powerhouse.

Together, football and  basketball should have no problem sharing the majority of the attention this athletic department receives, and both can compliment each other in different ways.

“There’s nothing greater in the fall than being in the shoe,” said Aaron Craft during the Buckeyes second and third round NCAA Tournament games in Pittsburgh.  “Watching our guys play football, especially with the buzz that’s going around right now with the new hires and all the recruits we have coming in.”

“It’s awesome to see Buckeye Nation come together through football, understanding the same fans back us during basketball season.”

Whether it be basketball, football, swimming, or synchronized swimming, everyone loves a winner and a reason to swell up with pride, and you’d be hard pressed to find a cluster of Buckeye fans who completely ignore the other success this school achieves.

Sports are sports, and college basketball should be treated as a pretty big deal, even in this football crazed part of the country.

Rick Pitino learning he can change, still find success

Rick Pitino, Russ Smith
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On the surface, Rick Pitino is a bad man.

He dresses slick, is incredibly sarcastic with the media and rarely wastes an opportunity to use punishment as a teaching opportunity.

It’s this approach that makes him one of the more recognizable, if not best, head coaches of the past 25 years.

But if there’s one thing I’ve noticed as this season has moved along, it’s how increasingly affable Pitino has become. Suddenly, he simply just seems happier. He’s flaunting his charismatic personality far more than his patented snarl.

A demanding and sometimes manipulative guy, the 59-year-old has had a number of well defined stages to his life. Perhaps the next stage is Pitino closing out his career at peace.

ESPN’s Rick Reilly sees it that way too:

Pitino’s life has more chapters than the Red Cross. He has been the whiz kid (the 1987 Final Four at Providence), the savior (at Kentucky in 1989 after Eddie Sutton left it in ruins), the goat (leaving Grant Hill unguarded in the infamous 1992 loss to Duke), the hero (the redemptive 1996 Kentucky title), the NBA answer (jumping to the pros for a second time in 1997 after two straight NCAA title games), the NBA failure (five losing seasons of six at New York and Boston), and, now, the dreamer (at Louisville, forever Robin to Kentucky’s Batman).

So this moment, this Saturday, with the commonwealth of Kentucky in flames all around him, should be the close-up of his life. Yet it’s not. He might be the least wound-up person in the entire state.

While it’s a great read – and includes a few fantastic anecdotes on Russ Smith on Gorgui Dieng – Reilly’s article should be taken with a grain of salt.

Let’s be realistic: you could probably attribute a measurable amount of Pitino’s more tolerable personality to his Cardinals overachieving the last month of the season.

Remember, this is a team that lost by 31 to Providence in the middle of January; the most helpless part of the season where you start to get sick of the grind but realize you’re not even halfway up the mountain. Pitino wasn’t so happy then, and neither were his players. It appeared the quirky personalities on the Cardinals roster were clashing with the aging coach.

So could it have been at that point where Pitino, a guy with more than 800 wins between both college and the NBA, five Final Four appearances and one National Championship at the time, made a concerted effort to just … calm down?

“[Rick] told us the other day he doesn’t have that many years left,” Kuric told Reilly after the Cardinals won the West Region. “He said he’s going to enjoy it. He’s going to be around people he likes.”

While a berth in the Final Four was well deserved, the Cardinals could have easily been bounced at any point in this tournament.

Pitino knows these are the breaks of a 68-team playoff system. Sometimes you get Kenneth Faried grabbing 17 rebounds, other times you get Florida shooting 0-9 from beyond the arc in the second half.

He’s happy to be in New Orleans, yes, but probably thrilled at the opportunity to show his self-reformation may be the primary reason this team is still standing.

Hard to root for John Calipari, but not because of his past


When John Calipari trots out to “On, On, U of K” in the Mercedes Benz Superdome on Saturday night, a nation will stand unified and root against him.

While Kentucky is unquestionably the wildest and loudest college basketball fan base in the country, not even the state they represent will be completely behind them. Unless you bleed blue or are in position to win your tournament pool, you don’t want this team to cut down more nets.

That’s not a knock on freshmen phenoms Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, or senior Darius Miller, or the soft-spoken Doron Lamb.  They’re all well deserving of a National Championship, and players a casual fan could develop a rooting interest for.

The reason for the venom being thrown around is all about Cal. He’s a fantastic basketball coach, no doubt, but as long as he’s the face of Big Blue Nation, few want this program to achieve excellence.

We’re not trolling, we’re just a culture that chooses to believe the bad and gloss over the good. You can’t sensationalize Calipari’s charitable deeds  (and there are a number of them), but you can sensationalize all the speculation as to just how and why two of his former programs were put on probation but Calipari got off clean.  You are also free to draw your own conclusions as to how he gets the pick of the litter from each high school recruiting class.

Whatever Cal did or didn’t do that crippled UMass and temporarily handcuffed Memphis I don’t care about. Perhaps there are a few members of the NCAA still flummoxed trying to prove something they’re quite certain of, but for the most part life goes on.

No, whatever Calipari may or may not be hiding in his closet isn’t why I’d prefer to see him lose, it’s what we see when the bright lights are shining: Cal’s effort to be charismatic sends shivers up and down my spine.

His personality borders on con-artist friendly, too-good-to-be-true charming, which raises red flags and prevents me from trusting him and his motives.

He reminds me of a used car salesman.

From giving back-handed compliments to Charles Barkley after beating Iowa State, to telling Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg that Anthony Davis was just being a “momma’s boy” when he banged knees with Perry Jones III during South Regional finals, Calipari’s method of interpersonal communication rubs me the wrong way, and it leads me to believe he’s overcompensating for something. Whether or not it’s for allowing someone not named Derrick Rose to take Derrick Rose’s SAT, I don’t know. I haven’t been in the thick of this long enough to confidently formulate an educated argument, but I do know I would never send my kid to play basketball for John Calipari.

Sure he’d do his best to get my kid to the NBA if that was the best place for him, but there’s other schools that produce pro players too … and I’m probably not going to raise a professional athlete.

Fair or unfair, my dislike for Calipari has nothing to do with basketball, and everything to do with what I see through a number of mediums.

Maybe he really is a genuinely nice person. Maybe he’s cordial and doesn’t do things public figures are forced to do for the sake of maintaining a favorable perception with the masses, but I don’t buy it.

I could be way off, ridicule me if you’d like, but if Kentucky wins the 2012 National Championship, I’d prefer it if we didn’t hail Cal.

We don’t need him gabbing anymore than he already does.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

Which guys might be the unsung Final Four hereos?

Jayhawks forward Young rejects a shot by A&M Aggies guard Harris during the second half of Jayhawks' win in the quarterfinals of the NCAA men's Big 12 basketball tournament in Kansas City

In 2003 it was Kansas’ Michael Lee. In the 2005 National Championship game it was Jack Ingram (who?) of Illinois. Last year it was whatever rim Butler was shooting at.

Every few years we get a guy that rode the pine or was inconsistent in the regular season. By tourney time, you weren’t expecting much out of him. But as madness would have it, the guy steps up big for whatever reason.

You can’t guarantee that there will be an unsung hero in the 2012 Final Four, but you can at least forecast who that player may be based on matchups and circumstances that may force a coach to look down towards the end of the bench for some help.

Who knows if any of the four players below will make any sort of impact in New Orleans. But if they do, don’t say you weren’t warned.

Amir Williams (Ohio State)

Had the Buckeyes defeated Syracuse without key shots from Lenzelle Smith, the sophomore guard would be obvious pick here. But because of his 18-point performance in the Elite Eight, the next player in Thad Matta’s rotation who may need to save his best game for the team’s biggest game is Williams. With the whistle being blown with such high frequency in this tournament, you may see Jared Sullinger and Evan Ravenel stuck on the bench for periods of time on Saturday. Against one of the best front lines in college basketball, Williams job against Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey will be much tougher than trying to slow down Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa-Keita. Because of the depth of the Buckeyes, Williams is a 2011 McDonalds All-American who only got seven minutes of run this season. He’s no slouch, it’s just a matter of if he can make a big play or two in what’s sure to be limited minutes.

Jared Swopshire (Louisville)

It’s got to be weird for Swopshire. He’s a former starter, but after sitting out last season with a groin injury he’s fallen behind freshman Chane Behanan on the depth chart. After Rick Pitino opted not to tag Swop with a medical-redshirt, all parties agreed it was best for the junior forward to transfer somewhere after this season. But before he goes, Swopshire could serve as an able body Pitino can throw into the game against Kentucky to maybe hit a few shots or grab a few rebounds to keep the Cardinals within striking distance of Kentucky.  If he’s able to contribute – if Pitino or foul trouble gives Swopshire the chance to contribute – it could be a really cool story for him before he heads elsewhere.

Kevin Young (Kansas)

There have been big, nationally televised Kansas games this season were Young frankly just looked like he didn’t belong. He looked timid and took the court simply hoping to not make a mistake, rather than assert himself and make a big play. But Bill Self has entrusted Young in the latter half of this season, as the Loyola Marymount transfer has averaged more than five rebounds a game in this NCAA Tournament. Because Ohio State’s frontcourt is deeper and more versatile, it will take a guy like Young to come off the bench for the Jayhawks and limit the production of Deshaun Thomas, and maybe even Lenzelle Smith and William Buford. If Self lets this kid give it his all in short spurts on Saturday night, he could prove valuable on the defensive end.

Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky)

Full disclosure, I simply went down the list of Kentucky players until I found the first guy not averaging double-figures in points. No offense to Wiltjer, but that’s the best way to go about this for the Wildcats. With six UK players averaging 10 or more points a game, and nearly all six of those players also doubling as pretty solid to elite defenders, Wiltjer can only be the unsung hero for this team if his teammates struggle to score and he’s stroking it from beyond the arc.

10 things you must to do prepare for Kentucky – Louisville

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source:  Sorry Ohio State and Kansas. As good as your game might be, there’s just not enough hype to go around for everyone leading up to this weekend.

Even if you don’t carry an allegiance to Kentucky or Louisville, that’s no excuse to not  fully envelop yourself in the first of two Final Four games this Saturday night, so you better get educated on all things Cats and Cards before tip-off.

On the court this one may end up a lopsided victory for Big Blue, but everything surrounding this game is what makes it so special.

Here’s 10 things to help you get prepared for the Bourbon State invading Bourbon Street.

1)  Learn everything about Russ Smith, and also be sure to follow @FakeRussSmith on Twitter. You won’t find a more lovable rascal in this year’s Final Four than the Cardinals offensive-minded guard.

2)  Set up an RSS feed in your Google Reader for and They’re the two best UK/UL for-the-fan blogs, and they’re run by two mildly famous people who double as “get it guys”.

3)  Follow this link, then explore. The Pitino – Calipari passive-aggressive relationship/rivalry goes way back, beginning in New England and now spreading its roots in the Bluegrass State. The more you know about these two, the better off you are at 6:09pm on Saturday night.

4)  Watch videos from The Rivalry, which was produced by WHAS in Louisville.

5)  Remind yourself just how little this rivalry means to most of the players, as the six 2011 McDonalds All-Americans threw light jabs and laughs at each other exactly one year ago this week. “They’re still going to be our boys for life,” Anthony Davis said when the discussion turned to their regular season match-up at Rupp Arena. That’s right, no venom here between these talented 18-year old kids.  Also please note how hot Michael Kidd-Gilchrist comes in and takes control of the conversation. Just like on the court, MKG does random YouTube videos with ferocity.

6)  Watch this Gorgui Dieng GIF….a lot. It is a quintessential example that GIFs are funny almost solely because of the element of repetition. I love this GIF so much.

7)  We would not be here today if it weren’t for this. While it looked bizarre and problematic for the Wildcats at the time, the firing of Billy Gillispie set into motion the start of a new regime in Lexington.

8)  But we must be bipartisan here: Louisville, although it was short-lived, recently had to deal with their own shameful moment.

9)  Understand that it’s completely normal for no fan of either of these two proud fan-bases to ever graduate.

10) Find a Kentucky– or Louisville-centric viewing party in your city and immerse yourself to fully appreciate one of college basketball’s best rivalries.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

Refs rob Ohio State-Syracuse audience of an even better game

Gerry McNamara, Jim Boeheim, C.J. Fair

BOSTON – When the inevitable question about the officiating was posed to Jim Boeheim during his post-game press conference, the Syracuse head coach mumbled just two words:

“No comment.”

Despite the brevity, Boeheim’s response was everything needed to tell us how he really felt about the stripes.

The officiating in Saturday night’s game was awful…and that’s an understatement.

The Orange, who committed an average of only 15 fouls a game this season, were whistled 29 times against Ohio State, while the Buckeyes were called for 20 fouls. Two of those Ohio State personal fouls were called on their star Jared Sullinger, who had to sit out the final 13:42 of the first half.

While the referees probably didn’t impact the outcome of the East Regional Final, they at least robbed fans of what could have been an even more competitive and high-level game.

Of the 16 players that took the floor, three fouled out, 10 committed at least three fouls, and every player committed at least one personal.

With Sullinger sidelined for most of the first half, there was a huge chunk of the game where the best player on the floor, one of the best players in college basketball, was unable to compete and showcase his skills in front of a national audience.

The same goes for Dion Waiters, and also Rakeem Christmas.

Even when the team’s best players were on the court, many were reluctant to play with a smidgen of physicality.

Sullinger basically rolled out a red carpet down the lane for Jardine twice in the second half.

Baye Moussa-Keita became frightened to try and grab a rebound for fear of bumping another player.

Christmas pretty much looked like he just wanted to quit playing, as the basic principles of interior defense suddenly became infractions.

It got to a point in the second half where players weren’t playing defense. They were playing some real-life version of Operator; don’t even touch the player you’re guarding or you’ll be whistled.

For a moment,  it looked like reserves Amir Williams and Michael Carter-Williams may have to decide what team moved on to the Final Four, while the guys that got both these teams to this point would have to helplessly watch from the bench.

The whole issue off poor officiating was compounded by the technical foul Tom O’Neill issued to Boeheim.

“He was assessed for being out of the coach’s box and gesturing about a call,” said an official release from crew chief John Higgins.

Gesturing? About a call?

You mean this gesture? Or this one ?

Was this the one that sent O’Neill over the top?

Boeheim has a patented “I don’t care for that call/play/decision” gesture. If he were to get a technical for every time he “gestured about a call” he wouldn’t be coaching anymore.

I was sitting right next to NCAA men’s basketball national officiating coordinator John Adams last night.

Stoic for the entire 40 minutes, you would have not known he was receiving an abundance of emails and texts regarding the number of questionable calls had he not set his cellphone font size to “extra large”.

His response to the officiating?

“No comment.”

Yes, sometimes nothing can tell the whole story.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN