Almost exactly one year ago, Thad Matta coached Xavier to an upset of top-ranked and previously unbeaten St. Joseph's in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals. The victory catapulted the Musketeers to a memorable run that included the A-10 tournament title and didn't end until the Atlanta Regional final of the NCAA tournament.
Sunday, a Matta-coached team did it again, as Ohio State knocked off No. 1 Illinois, the nation's last undefeated team, 65-64 in Columbus, Ohio. But there will be no magical run resulting from this upset, even though it improved the Buckeyes to 19-11 overall and 8-8 in the Big Ten. Last December, the school imposed a one-year postseason ban on itself as penalty for NCAA rules violations committed under the watch of Matta's predecessor, Jim O'Brien, who was fired last June.
"I just hope that the guys mention us when the brackets go up," said Buckeyes' Brandon Fuss-Cheatham after beating Illinois Sunday.
(Kiichiro Sato -- AP)
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"I'm sure the guys went home [Sunday] night thinking: 'Dang, we're in the tournament,' " Matta said in a phone interview yesterday. "That was a very big win for us and probably would have put us right there."
Even before Sunday's upset, seniors Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, Matt Marinchick and Tony Stockman were feeling the sting of the ban.
"It's real tough because we'd be right there fighting for a bid," Fuss-Cheatham said in an interview late last month. "You dream of playing in the tournament from the time you are a little kid, so to not have that opportunity based on a situation that is out of your control is hard to take."
At the time it was announced, a postseason ban on the Buckeyes seemed superfluous. Ohio State was 5-2, with losses to Creighton and Clemson, after being picked ninth in the conference in a Chicago Sun-Times preseason poll. Matta, who posted three consecutive 20-win seasons at Xavier, had inherited nine players from a 14-16 team that finished ninth in the Big Ten in 2003-04.
"We were the only ones who thought we could be good when the season started," said Marinchick. "After everything that happened, I don't think people in our own school expected us to do anything, let alone be in position to think about playing in the tournament."
But in light of their most recent performance -- and the missteps of so many teams on the brink of NCAA tournament contention -- the Buckeyes almost certainly would be in position to hear their names called Sunday, when the 65-team field is revealed. Instead, Ohio State plays Penn State on Thursday in the first round of the only tournament they'll see this year, the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
"We're looking at [the conference tournament] as our NCAA tournament, our Final Four," Marinchick said. "If we can win it, maybe mess up someone else's season, we'll be able to walk away feeling a little bit better about this whole thing. But I'm sure we'll all be sitting there watching the seedings thinking about where we could have been playing."
While Marinchick said that it will be hard for him to watch the announcement of the pairings -- "I'll probably go to the library or something," he said -- Fuss-Cheatham said he plans on being in front of a television because "that's what I've done every year since I can remember."
"I just hope that the guys mention us when the brackets go up," Fuss-Cheatham said. "You know: 'Ohio State deserves to be in' or something like that. It would feel good to know that they at least acknowledged us because we've had a pretty good season."
Matta said he was aware that some type of NCAA sanctions could be coming when he was hired in July. O'Brien, who led Ohio State to the Final Four in 1999, was fired in June after admitting to giving a potential recruit, Aleksandar Radojevic, $6,000 in 2000.
Radojevic never played for Ohio State and O'Brien claimed that he was simply trying to help out a player whose family was in "dire financial straits." O'Brien has sued Ohio State, claiming the school owes him $3.5 million for violating the terms of his contract by firing him.
When Matta told his team that the school had decided to impose punishment, several players reacted with anger.
"The thing is, it was just the start of the season, and none of us had done anything wrong," Fuss-Cheatham said. "But I also understand that the school had to do something. If not, maybe the NCAA comes in and does something even worse, you know? We just happened to be the people who had to pay for what happened."
Matta said the most impressive thing about his players is that instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they buckled down, played hard on nightly basis and truly bought into his program.
"We've had 105 practices and maybe five of them have been bad," Matta said. "I told them early on that this would be one of the best lessons you learn in life. Life might not always be fair, but you have to keep fighting through it. And I told the seniors: 'You've helped us lay a foundation for this program and its future. You're always going to be a part of what we do here.' "