The relationship between Tom Izzo and Thad Matta has been an interesting one. With the two Big Ten coaches pitching Ohio State and Michigan State against each other in high-stakes games for more than a decade, two of the league’s longest-tenured coaches had a mutual respect and understanding for each other.
So when Izzo was asked after the Buckeyes knocked off his No. 1 Spartans on Sunday afternoon at Value City Arena about Ohio State and its direction under first-year coach Chris Holtmann, he segued into a reference to his immediate predecessor when looking back at Ohio State’s win here last season.
“Last year when we played here, they had a player that was talented but maybe not as good a team player and those two stars tonight weren’t playing half the year,” Izzo said. “As much as I give Chris credit, I think Thad did the right thing getting rid of who he got rid of. They’ve got some juniors and seniors on (the roster) that are damn good and Chris has done a good job with them. (Keita Bates-)Diop is an effective, effective player.”
The veiled reference to JaQuan Lyle, who scored 22 points in last year’s 72-67 win in Columbus, wasn’t hard to catch. But the belief that Matta might have left the cupboard a little better-stocked than many gave him credit for when he was fired in early June was equally interesting.
Izzo credited the likes of senior Jae’Sean Tate and Bates-Diop for their roles in playing Ohio State into the national conversation in Holtmann’s first season. Asked if he would text Matta after the game, Holtmann said he’d likely call him this week and then also shared his thoughts on the man he replaced.
“I want to make very clear on this and make sure that this is said and spoken and tweeted: Thad and his coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for recruiting a young man like Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams is really coming into his own,” Holtmann said. “People ask me all the time what makes guys like Keita and JT good players and I say first of all they’re exceptional people. Coach Matta and his staff deserve a ton of credit for recruiting those kind of people because they’ve embraced a new coaching staff and they’ve done it the right way.”
Holtmann has the Buckeyes on the precipice of being nationally ranked for the first time since March 2015. The Spartans will fall in the rankings but remain among a handful of teams considered favorites to win the NCAA Tournament.
Izzo said this is closer to what Ohio State basketball is expected to be, and where it primarily was under Matta.
“One-hundred percent with the AD they’ve got, the facilities they have,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question. And I think for the most part Thad had it there. He played for some championships. He played in Final Fours. It was a tough go last year. Sometimes when you get caught with kids leaving early and the way things go you take kids that maybe you shouldn’t take. I’ve done that a few times in my career and when that happens it destroys a lot of things.
“If you really look back on a number of games they were right in and just couldn’t get over the hump. I thought he did a great job and Chris, he left him something nice to work with and he’s done a good job with that.”
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