COLUMBUS, Ohio – For those who believe that coaching an elite group of college basketball players is as simple as making sure that the bus has gas and the basketballs have air, Ohio State coach Thad Matta can be Exhibit A that accomplishing success is far from being that simple.
Matta studied education as an undergrad at Butler University, and when it comes to Buckeyes sophomore Deshaun Thomas' game, Matta has had to teach, teach and teach some more. He's also had to throw in a little bit of psychology for good measure. But the end result is that Thomas is playing his best basketball of his life at just the right time.
Ohio State (31-7) will face Kansas (31-6) at 8:45 p.m. Saturday in New Orleans in the Final Four (CBS).
“I had a talk with Deshaun right before the Syracuse game (on Saturday),” Matta said. “I told him ‘You've got that look.' He said ‘No, I'm fine.' I said now you've got to trust me. Why would you not trust me now? We've come too far together and I know the look. When I get him to smile, he's in good shape.”
Thomas has evolved from a high school player who had to score virtually every possession in order to help his team win into a player who can score to help his team, but he also needs to do many other things on the court, and often with less of an emphasis on shooting.
Matta could sense before the Elite Eight game with the Orangemen that Thomas was losing his focus.
“His biggest challenge throughout the course of the season has been getting his mind focused on where it needs to be to play his best basketball,” Matta said.
Thomas didn't become the IHSAA's third-leading scorer (just one point short of ranking second) because he was gun-shy. It has taken Matta almost two full years of instruction to get the Bishop Luers High School graduate to believe what the Buckeye staff was trying to instill in him, which was to make him an all-around player, not solely a one-dimensional threat.
“What I've seen (lately) in Deshaun is trust,” Matta said. “He's developed a great trust in me. He's developed a great trust in his teammates. He's developed a great trust in the (coaching) staff.”
The improvement in Thomas' game has been staggering since he arrived in Columbus 21 months ago, but never more so than over the course of this season. Not only did the 6-foot-7 forward get into tremendous physical condition over last summer, but he's improved in almost every other way imaginable from a mediocre freshman season.
A year ago, Thomas was so atrocious at the defensive end of the floor that Matta simply could not play the 2010 Indiana Mr. Basketball very much. Thomas averaged just more than 14 minutes per game.
But one thing that Thomas has never lacked is work ethic. He began to listen to his coaches, and he has made monumental strides in his ability to defend, as well as share the basketball. Now Matta can't afford to take Thomas out of the game (he's averaging more than 38 minutes per game in the NCAA Tournament).
“He's probably been our most consistent offensive player all season long,” Matta said. “(But) He now takes great pride in defending. He takes great pride in shot selection.”
Thomas is defending better, but it hasn't been at the expense of his offense. He is leading Ohio State in scoring during the tournament (21.8 points per game) and shooting very accurately (53 percent from the floor and over 41 percent from three-point range in the tournament). He has also greatly improved his effort in rebounding. Thomas is grabbing three more boards per game in the tournament (8.5) than he averaged during the season.
“I'll be honest, I could not be happier for him and how he's playing right now,” Matta said. “I've seen all of the hard work that he's put into it and he's reaping the rewards.”