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posted by Bruce Hooley -

The lower Ohio State's basketball season spirals, the more confounding the dilemma becomes on how to fix the problems, and the more awkward the situation becomes for the team's final two homes games.

Head coach Thad Matta will set a record tonight in OSU's next-to-last game at Value City Arena this season. Matta will coach his 457th game at Ohio State, the most in school history.

The hope is he won't also set a record for his most-lopsided loss ever, although I suppose that's a possibility in the 9 p.m. tip against Wisconsin.

The Badgers are one of the best teams in the Big Ten, a description no one would waste on this collection of Buckeyes (5-10, 15-13), who will fail to win 10 league games for the first time in Matta's 13 seasons and likely will fall short of winning 20 games for the first time in his 17 seasons as a head coach.

Matta has not only been at Ohio State long enough to coach more games than anyone else, he's also the best basketball coach OSU has ever had.

Yes, I know you old-timers will contend that Fred Taylor merits that designation because he won the Buckeyes’ only national championship in 1960. But Taylor couldn't get more than that one title out of two basketball Hall of Famers in Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. And while Taylor had reason to lose heart after the Big Ten and OSU officials refused to back him after an egregious brawl at Minnesota in the early 1970s, I can't give Taylor greatest-coach-ever at Ohio State status because of the way he pouted and mailed in his job for years after that.

Matta has taken OSU to two Final Fours, and he's won four regular-season Big Ten titles and five Tournament titles in an era where the league had its best coaches top-to-bottom.

Amid that run of success, Matta had a series of back surgeries, one of which went horribly wrong, leaving him without muscle control in one of his feet. Matta wears a brace in his shoe and essentially drags that foot around like an anchor.

It's why you never see Matta sitting in a chair like other coaches. His body simply won't allow him to do it. Yet I've never heard him complain about it once. And for a guy who was once an active runner and golfer, the forced inactivity has to be torture for him.

Despite his physical difficulties, I've never noticed any diminished effort in Matta's work ethic. He's still recruiting just as hard and coaching just as hard, albeit without the success OSU fans became accustomed to.

And that's the problem. When you win as much as Matta did -- taking OSU to a school-record seven straight NCAA Tournament berths -- you become a prisoner of expectations you created.

Under Eldon Miller, Randy Ayers and Jim O'Brien, a two-year stretch like OSU is going through right now would have barely raised an eyebrow in February and March. The only thing people would have wondered? "When does spring football start."

But because Sweet Sixteens and Big Ten championships became the norm, because Matta finally squeezed out of OSU the year-in-and-year out performance it had been capable of all along, the masses are now no longer entertained and want to lop off Matta's head like a defeated gladiator.

I won't be a part of it, even though I'm just as frustrated, probably more frustrated, by the lack of winning and the lack of development in players like senior Marc Loving.

I mentioned the Thursday home game against Wisconsin will be awkward because Matta will likely set the record for games coached, probably in a game OSU loses.

It's going to be even more uncomfortable on Saturday, March 4, when OSU honors Loving on Senior Day. When Loving came out of high school in Toledo, Ohio State took him over another kid in the same city who was about the same size, only not as good of a prospect.

That kid, Nigel Hayes, grew into one of the best players in the country at Wisconsin.

Loving, meanwhile, has languished in mediocrity and never stepped forward to lead either by example or on the court.

Loving's indifferent career is indicative of a glaring lack of player development in Matta's program. For that, I hold the coach accountable. His assistants have gotten either too comfortable or have lost their ability to draw the best out of the raw talent Ohio State recruits.

But some of that failure is also player-driven. After all, it's essentially the same coaching staff and strength training staff that worked at OSU when Evan Turner arrived on campus and devoted himself to becoming the Player of the Year in college basketball and the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft in a three-year span.

I don't believe coaches get stupid from one year to the next. I don't believe Thad Matta has forgotten how to coach. I know his desire to put in the work to win hasn't diminished.

He's too good of a guy, too class of a guy, to throw his players under the bus for not working hard enough or not implementing what they're coached to do. And that's just as well, because given how many of those guys Matta has, he'd need a fleet of buses to cover all of his players' shortcomings. One bus just wouldn't do it.

I believe Thad has earned the right and the time to try to fix the program he built. There are three years left on his contract, and OSU should honor every one of them.

If you check the history books, you'll discover this is far from the leanest of the lean years in OSU basketball history.

It sure feels like it, though, and that's the case solely because of the standard Thad Matta created.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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