COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Growing up in the aptly named Hoopeston, Ill., Thad Matta was always a fan of Big Ten basketball. But while the status of most of the league's members changed for both better and worse- and sometimes better again- in the time that it took Matta to accept the head coaching job at Ohio State in 2004, one program has remained a constant at the top of the conference mountain: Michigan State.
The Spartans have been simultaneous with success since the late 1970s and the days of Magic Johnson. Since 1978, MSU has won 10 Big Ten regular season titles, appeared in 24 NCAA Tournaments- including the past 15- and has won two national championships. The Spartans' status has been sustained over time by head coach Tom Izzo, who took over the program in 1995 after serving as an assistant coach to former MSU headman Jud Heathcote.
"He took over a program that had had success and he's really taken it to another level," Matta said of Izzo, who has coached the Spartans to seven conference championships. "I've always been a Big Ten fan from a little kid growing up, and they have been kind of at the top.
"When I got here, that was one of the few programs that was probably going to stand the test of time that we were probably going to have to compete with if we wanted to do this thing like we had set out to."
What it was that Matta set out to do was build a program that would compete with MSU on an annual basis. And given that the Buckeyes have won five Big Ten regular season championships in the past seven years, it'd be hard to argue hasn't done just that.
Some of the success that Matta has found in his nine seasons at Ohio State, however, has been shared. In 2010, as well as 2012, both the Buckeyes and Spartans claimed shares of the the conference title, and it was just last March that MSU knocked off OSU in the Big Ten Tournament title game- just a week after the Buckeyes beat the Spartans in East Lansing on a William Buford buzzer-beater.
According to Matta, the one constant in both his program and Izzo's has been the quality of their players. In Draymond Green and Evan Turner, the two schools are responsible for two of the last three conference players of the year, and OSU and MSU have combined to have 14 players selected in the past eight NBA drafts.
"The first thing I figured out was really good players," Matta said with a smile, when asked what he thought it would take to match the Spartans' success. "I'm being dead serious about that."
The 45-year-old Matta has also attempted to instill a sense of toughness in his teams that matches Izzo's defense-first philosophy. That has, in turn, has made some of the Buckeyes' battles with the Spartans look more like brawls than ballgames, with the two teams combining for 101 fouls in their three meetings last season.
Tonight doesn't figure to be much different for the two teams, who have each suffered three regular season losses this year, and sit a game back of Wisconsin for the conference lead. In a tougher-than-usual Big Ten, where six teams other than the Badgers are ranked in the top-25, Matta knows that each league game will matter, but that every big time game is just a prelude to another.
You look at last year, three teams won (the Big Ten) with five losses and it's probably a little more competitive this year than it was last year, as scary as that sounds," Matta said. "You look across the board in college basketball and you see some of the scores and it shows you, number one, the parity, but I think you couple that with the Big Ten and just how good the league is this year. If you have an off-night, you're not going to win, there's no doubt about that."