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March 24, 2012

William Buford

Aaron Craft

Thad Matta

Jared Sullinger


Ohio State  – 77
Syracuse – 70

COACH MATTA:  Well, obviously I thought a high level college basketball game, probably the way it's supposed to be in the Regional Finals.  We beat a tremendous basketball team tonight.  It's funny, I thought our guys, we got off to a good start.  Jared got in a little bit of foul trouble.  Everybody kind of pulled together, and it's something we've been preaching with this basketball team, and came down the second half to guys making big plays.  And we told them, to win this game, somebody was going to have to step up and make plays, and fortunately for us, all these guys‑‑ Lenzelle (Smith), they're finishing up his stitches, they put four in so they're doing them again now.  He's going to be fine.
But very proud of these guys and what they've been able to accomplish thus far in the season.

Q.  Jared, you sat about 13 minutes in the first half, yet Syracuse wasn't able to pull away.  Did you kind of get the feeling that coach was going to sit you out for what was left and then you would use that energy to go crazy in the second half like you did?
JARED SULLINGER:  I didn't know Coach Matta was going to sit me.  But these guys have played without me before, so they know what they have to do.  We just kept competing on the defensive end.  I think that's what won the basketball game.  And also in the first half that's what got the game so knotted up.  It's not the first time they've played without me, so I'm just proud of these guys.

Q.  William, after struggling in the last game, just talk about how having your game today, just how redeeming that was.
WILLIAM BUFORD:  My coaches and my teammates have great confidence in me, so I just came out and tried to have fun and play my game, and I just wanted to play hard, help each other out on defense and try to move the ball on offense.  It just helped a lot.

Q.  Aaron, could you talk about Lenzelle in the second half and what he did for you guys?
AARON CRAFT:  I mean, he did a lot for us, whether it was offensively or defensively.  He stepped up and made a couple big shots for us, and on the other end, as well, he did a good job of keeping their great guards in front of him and trying to do his best.  He was a little out of it the first half after getting hit and getting those stitches, but he did a great job at halftime of kind of regrouping and sticking together, and he knocked down some big shots for us.

Q.  Jared, can you talk about the development of some of these guys?  Amir (Williams) didn't play hardly at all tonight, and he played nine minutes in the first half and did pretty well.  Lenzelle wasn't really a scorer much early in the year and he ends up getting 18 points tonight in the biggest game of the year.
JARED SULLINGER:  I mean, Lenzelle had big games before, when we played Indiana and then when we played Michigan.  Lenzelle, the bigger the game I think the better he plays.  With Amir, Amir always had talent.  It's just unfortunately he's playing behind me and Evan (Ravenel) at the time, so watch out for him next year.  But those guys, they played big when it came to a big‑time game, and I thought that was tremendous for this basketball team.

Q.  For Aaron, you were up eight, I think, or six when you fouled out.  Shannon (Scott) is coming in cold off the bench facing the press.  I wondered if you had any words for him just how to handle that situation.  It was getting a little tight there down the stretch.
AARON CRAFT:  I had a couple words for everybody, but I don't know if they were too good.  I was just trying to keep us all together, help everyone understand the game wasn't over, that with their ability to shoot the three ball and trap it and things like that, it would be easy to turn the tide.  We had great confidence in Shannon.  I harass him every day in practice, so I hope that helps him when he gets in games like this.
He did a good job covering the ball when he needed to and things like that, so give them a lot of credit for finishing the game.

Q.  You basically had said this was the reason you came back to school so can you talk about what this feels like?
JARED SULLINGER:  I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we was the underdogs, we wasn't good enough, mentally strong enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature, we heard it all.  When we was going through that slump in February, everybody was saying this basketball team was kind of on a downhill.  We heard negative comments.  I want to thank y'all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that.  I'm so proud of these guys.  It's just‑‑ I mean, we came from nothing, according to y'all, to something now.
We know hopefully it's not our last game, so we're just trying to play hard and play smart, and not going down to New Orleans for a vacation, it's a business trip.

Q.  Aaron, just along the same lines of the question to Jared, could you just kind of walk us through what you were thinking when you realized the game was in hand when you realized you were going to advance to the Final Four?
AARON CRAFT:  Excitement.  You know, midway through the season, I think we had to do some soul searching as a basketball team.  We had some good times, and we definitely went through a rough patch where we lost three of five.  I don't think any of us had really dealt with that before playing basketball or any competition we had been in.  I think the coaching staff did a great job, they stayed positive with us and stuck with it, and I think we did a good job as a basketball team, understand we still could accomplish what we wanted to, and that started with the Big Ten and winning that, and then just trying to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, and right now I think we're doing a good job of sticking together, understanding that's what this is about, and just really proud of these guys for sticking together, and hopefully we can come out and play good basketball next week, as well.

Q.  William, since the other two guys already answered what it's like to go to the Final Four, you've been here the longest.  With what you've been through the last three years in the NCAA Tournament and finally getting through to the Sweet 16 a couple days ago, what does it feel like for you your senior year to be able to do this?
WILLIAM BUFORD:  It feels great.  Nobody on this team has ever made it this far.  In past years I got put on the Sweet 16.  To make it this far is kind of a relief to know that hard work pays off.  We've all been working hard throughout the summer and throughout the season, and to make it to the Final Four is just great for us.

Q.  Aaron, just your feelings today, I'm assuming your brother did get deployed today, your feelings on the whole kind of day you've been through with him and going to the Final Four and everything at one time?
AARON CRAFT:  Yeah, I talked to him this morning.  They kind of get towhere they're going to take off from and then just kind of sit there until they tell them to go.  The first time he sat around for a while.  I talked to him this morning, and we had the going away talk.  He just told me to enjoy it.  He wishes he could watch and be here, but he's doing something more important, and it just keeps everything in perspective.
I'm just really happy that I was able to enjoy this with our basketball team and with all these guys, and hopefully we can continue to do so next week.

Q.  Thad, you've had lots of success in your coaching career, but the job that you and your staff and your players did to get through this season and reach this point, what do you think of what you guys have done as a team through the entire year to achieve this?
COACH MATTA:  It's funny, I don't know if it's completely sunk in yet, just from what we've‑‑ everything, as soon as it ends, Dan (Wallenberg) has got me doing this, that, this, that.  As I take a moment to reflect, I mean, I don't know if I could be prouder of a basketball team in terms of what‑‑ everything that they've been through, and not bad.  We never lost two games in a row.  You look at the losses we had this year, hard‑fought games.
But I think the thing that makes me the most proud is these guys kept getting better, and just like I talked to them a second ago, they have to keep the same focus when we go back into practice, when we go back into film.  Whoever we're playing, we'll find out tomorrow evening, the preparation has got to be there.
The thing I enjoy the most about this team is they've grown to enjoy the process, and I think that's something as a head coach that you look for with your team, that they enjoy that.

Q.  Along the lines of Doug's question, it was four weeks ago when you told us after the Wisconsin game you kicked the guys out of practice.  What happened?  Did you see‑‑ do you see anything drastically different within the guys, within the team after that Wisconsin loss that developed to allow you to win the last two games and be where you're sitting today?
COACH MATTA:  Yeah, you know, it's hard because each team, each guy, each day is different.  I think that that loss opened their eyes and said, hey, we're not as good as maybe we think we are, and I think that allowed us as a staff to say we have another gear.  We can play better basketball.  We can play more together.  We can prepare better.  As hard as that loss was to take, having a lead down the stretch, we missed some free throws, maybe it got us pointed in the right direction.
But I didn't see‑‑ you know, the thing I saw after that was when we weren't, let's say, practicing well, guys knew it, and they could correct it, and that's probably the number one thing right there.

Q.  A couple weeks ago one of your assistants told me that he thought it might be your best coaching job this season because of all the buttons you've had to push.  I'll let you evaluate how this season ranks with you, but also, have you ever pushed more buttons as a head coach than you had to this season?
COACH MATTA:  I don't think so.  It hasn't been a challenge because we've got great kids.  But there's been just‑‑ this team is still so young, and you're still trying to learn what gets them going.  You know, I've kind of enjoyed that challenge because they've been receptive to what we've asked them to do.  As all ‑‑ even our other children fight us on things, but I think they have an understanding of let's play for the team and good things will happen for me.  As we tell them all the time, the more you give of yourself, the more that's going to come back to you.
And I think as you look at what we've done here in the NCAA Tournament, that's been the exact thing that's happened for us.

Q.  A comment on Lenzelle tonight and the cut over his eye, the whole regional he had here?  Could you have expected that from him?  He's had flashes of various things all season but maybe not back to back like this.
COACH MATTA:  Well, I'll tell you what:  It's funny because, as crazy as this sounds, he had lost his man on defense and given up a three and then came down and threw kind of a wild pass that almost got picked off, and I was literally saying he doesn't have it at the moment, let's get him out and we'll talk to him.  Then he bangs a three, and I'm like, he's back.
So we let him ride it out.  But the runner he had up over I don't know which one it was, but he played great basketball, knocked down his free throws when we needed them.  You love to see it.
The funny thing is as he was shooting those threes and as we ended shoot around this morning or this afternoon, he made 25 straight from the corner.  I was like, all right, he's on, and I felt like he could have a pretty good shooting night.
Lenzelle has learned the value of commitment, the value of hard work, and couldn't be happier with how he played.

Q.  He said when he came back he was having difficulty seeing because of the lights and you switched up the defense a little bit.  Did you know that?  Did you know he was vision impaired?
COACH MATTA:  No, I didn't.  He didn't tell me.

Q.  Best that you didn't.
COACH MATTA:  Yeah, best.  I know he was messed up when he said he was switching defense.  They were playing 2‑3 zone the entire night.

Q.  He said you guys.
COACH MATTA:  Yeah, yeah, he was a little dizzy.

Q.  Also on Lenzelle, early in the year, he didn't score hardly at all.  In this, the biggest game of the year, he scores 18 points and he's really a clutch player in the second half.  Did you see that early‑‑ you were talking the other day about not seeing this team win 30 games, and I don't know whether early in the year you would have seen Lenzelle score 18 points like this in this game or Amir play nine minutes in the first half, more than Jared did.  Can you just comment on both the development of those guys?
COACH MATTA:  Yeah.  I think with Lenzelle, as I said the other day, when he's thinking how do I help this team, good things happen for him.  You know, the thing that he's probably done the best job of is figuring out how to play off of everybody else and finding the seams.  They're shading where Will is and he can find that space.  I've seen him continuing to work after practice and developing a little bit more every day.  As we started the season, he was‑‑ his motor, his energy in practice in early October was incredible, and I thought he could have a heck of a season for us, especially on the defensive end.
With Amir Williams, it's funny because I think dating back when he came back for (Rakeem) Christmas, he's been tremendous in practice, and if you really look across the board when he's gone in when it mattered, he's done a heck of a job for us.  At Kansas, up at Michigan, he gave us some great minutes, and he went in there tonight and did his job.  That's what we needed him to do.

Q.  With your foot, what's it like trying to climb that ladder?
COACH MATTA:  You noticed I had guys to catch me.  They know.  I have no balance, and as crazy as it sounds, the brace picks it up, but it doesn't stop it from going sideways.  Yeah, they were there to catch me in case I fell.

Q.  The guys in the locker room were talking about how watching you all year helped them appreciate and learn toughness, resilience and not complaining.  What's it like to hear that?
COACH MATTA:  Well, I wish it was somebody else that they were talking about.  But I think that that‑‑ I don't know, it makes me feel good that they know.  When they do complain, a lot of times I'm saying, hey, it could be worse, trust me.  But the funny thing is how they protect me, and if they know there's a loose ball and they're within distance to stop so they can't run me over, guys have jumped in front of me before in practice and taken a hit so I wouldn't get hit.  But I think that's the relationship that I want with this basketball team because quite honestly I'll do it for them, too.

Q.  I just came from the locker room, and I saw that the words National Championship are inscribed on the white board, and I'm wondering if people in your camp have already turned the page and are ready to get down to New Orleans, and at what point this week are you going to cut the celebration off and start to focus on Saturday?
COACH MATTA:  Well, I think New Orleans is a celebration type town, so we're just going to keep rolling right in there.  I think one of the guys wrote that up there.
This team, as a coach, I've been a head coach now for 12 years, and the one thing I've always tried to do was enjoy the special moments.  We're going to enjoy‑‑ we don't even know who we're playing yet.  I think taking the time to celebrate is something that they deserve.  I would say when we get back in on Monday, it'll be time to go to work, and we've got a week to prepare for either North Carolina or Kansas and get ready to go.

Q.  In reference to Bob's question about button pushing, how much of what you have done this year has been with the mental aspect of the game as opposed to teaching players how to play?
COACH MATTA:  Wow, that's a heck of a question.  I don't know if I could put a percentage on it.  You know, the one thing, I think, that‑‑ why the button pushing, if you will, or just the mental side of the game is so important because of the youthfulness of this team.  You look at a team that had two starters back, and you could say Aaron (Craft) was a starter last year.  He played 28, 29 minutes a game.  But there were so many unknowns.
You had guys that didn't understand how we wanted to practice.  We didn't understand the value of team work.  And I think those are the things of‑‑ at shoot‑around or practice yesterday, reminding a player to tuck his shirt in.  It's 139 practices, please tuck your shirt in, those types of things, and I think now they mess with me to see what it is.
But I think that's the biggest thing we've tried to establish here in eight years is just the culture and environment for this program and how we want to do things.  And I think that's where a lot of it comes, the button pushing, because there were so many unknowns with this team, and guys in their own minds thought, I'll be Jon Diebler, I'll be Dave Lighty, but we didn't need them to be, we needed them to be themselves and play their best basketball.

Q.  Can you talk about the luxury of being able to sit Jared for so long in the first half and not be affected terribly on the scoreboard?
COACH MATTA:  Yeah, great luxury.  I think‑‑ we were talking, what does it get to before we put him back in, and those guys fought and did a tremendous job of holding the status quo as we went into halftime.  Basically said, no blood, zero, zero, we've got 20 more minutes to do it in, and I felt good that he was getting rest.  I knew he was going to play well in the second half.  There was no doubt about that.

Q.  You mentioned two of your favorite players, Diebler and Lighty.  You were asked yesterday if you had heard from either of those two or Dallas (Lauderdale).  Have you or, if you know, any of the players heard from those guys?
COACH MATTA:  I have, yeah.

Q.  Who have you heard from and what did they say?
COACH MATTA:  Just great job.  I think Jon had texted me great job after the game the other night.  I'm not exactly sure.

Q.  Just to close, I know it's something you've been striving for and you're in it all the time, but is there a surreal aspect?  How does it feel to actually make it into the Final Four after being shut down in the Sweet 16 the last couple years?
COACH MATTA:  It feels great.  I think this is two in five years for us, or six years, '07, '12.  I think that's six.  I've never understood the year thing math‑wise.  That says five.  I went to Butler.  That says five, but it is six years.  I'm excited.  I think six years ago I probably didn't enjoy the moment as much as I wanted to or needed to.  But truth be told, I probably won't enjoy this one, either, and we'll get down there and try to play our best basketball.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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