NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Ohio State coach Thad Matta had seen enough, so he called off practice.
Senior William Buford wouldn’t let them quit. We’re sticking around, finishing this _ with or without coach.
“We needed to stay together and show coach that we really wanted to be here,” Buford said on Thursday.
They sure did.
Sparked by that we’ll-show-coach moment of solidarity and buoyed by a refresher-course team meeting, the Buckeyes have made an unexpected run into the Final Four.
Following a loss to Wisconsin the day after Matta’s outburst, Ohio State (31-7) has won eight of nine games and is playing its best basketball at just the right time.
The young Buckeyes face Kansas in Saturday’s Final Four matchup in the Big Easy and have found the confidence that was missing during an ugly stretch in February that had Matta wondering if his team could even get past the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“There was a lot of finger-pointing going around. There was some adversity; we weren’t playing as well as we thought we should be,” point guard Aaron Craft said. “There were guys just not taking responsibility for their actions, and he tried to kick us out. I think we did a good job of fighting back. Since the last week of the season, it’s been a better team mind-set, and we’ve dealt with adversity a lot better.”
The Buckeyes opened the season with some decent expectations thanks to Jared Sullinger’s decision to return for his sophomore season. Still, they were young and inexperienced, with 11 underclassmen on the roster, leaving Matta unsure of where the team was headed.
Ohio State’s only losses were on the road to Kansas _ without Sullinger _ Indiana and Illinois, and it had moved up to third in the rankings.
Then, the Buckeyes seemed to get discombobulated.
Sullinger started complaining about the way officials were calling games and seemed bothered by teams playing physical defense. The entire team became more selfish, sometimes not even knowing what play was being run or where to be on the court.
In position to take a two-game lead in the Big Ten with six left on Feb. 11, the Buckeyes labored in a 58-48 loss to Michigan State, shooting 26 percent while scoring 29 points below their average to see a 39-game home winning streak end.
The Buckeyes bounced back with a road win against Minnesota, but followed with a 56-51 loss at Michigan and still seemed to be in a funk despite beating Illinois.