COLUMBUS, OHIO (AP) - It’s hard to even recall how bleak things were at Ohio State seven years ago when Thad Matta took over as head basketball coach.
“It wasn’t good,” Matta said of the woeful culture of the program.
Jim O'Brien had been summarily dismissed for giving a recruit money, NCAA investigators were sniffing around campus and ready to drop the hammer on the Buckeyes and on top of everything else there wasn’t all-world talent in the pipeline.
Now the top-ranked Buckeyes (34-2) are the No. 1 overall seed and on a roll coming off second- and third-round wins by a combined 61 points heading into Friday night’s regional semifinal showdown with Kentucky (27-8) in Newark, N.J.
How fitting that when he first arrived at Ohio State, Matta used Kentucky as one of the templates for what he wanted to construct.
“When I came here, I looked at what a Kentucky had done, what a North Carolina had done, and those things weren’t built over night, and not in a decade. It took several decades,” the thinning-haired, 43-year-old native of the aptly named Hoopeston, Ill., said Tuesday. “When we came in here seven years ago, Ohio State had a 51-percent winning percentage in the Big Ten. We knew we had our work cut out for us in building this thing.”
But how has Matta turn around the program?
Satch Sullinger, father of Matta’s current star post player, Jared, is a legendary high school coach in Columbus. His son, J.J., also played for Matta at Ohio State. He tells a story that sheds light on how Matta treats his players _ and why he might just be the best recruiter in the nation.
“Thad Matta coaches the whole kid,” Sullinger said. “When Jim O'Brien was fired, he wrote out a map for the guys to come to his house to give them the news. They’d never been there before. Thad Matta wasn’t in that position (at Ohio State) for two weeks before he had his whole team over to his house. It’s family. He coaches family. He doesn’t coach a basketball team.”
When then-athletic director Andy Geiger ruled early in Matta’s first season that Ohio State would not accept any postseason offer to mitigate potential NCAA penalties, Matta recognized how damaging that was to his budding program. With little to play for, the Buckeyes nonetheless went 20-12 and shocked unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Illinois on a late shot in the regular-season finale.
Shortly after that, Matta began receiving verbal commitments from one of the greatest recruiting classes ever _ the so-called Thad Five of Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook, David Lighty and Othello Hunter.
With the possibility of additional NCAA sanctions hanging over the program, Matta provided a unique escape clause to them: If the NCAA added to Ohio State’s penalties, he would release them from their scholarships. It was a remarkably fair and gracious move. Lighty, still a Buckeye, refused the offer outright. The others stuck with Matta and Ohio State.
No more sanctions were levied. In Matta’s second season, the Buckeyes went 26-6 and lost in the second round of the NCAAs. The great recruiting class then came in and led the way to a 35-4 season that ended with a loss to defending champion Florida in the national title game.
Matta, whose teams at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State have always won at least 20 games, piled up records of 24-13, 22-11 and 29-8 heading into this season. Those glittering marks have come despite losing Oden, Conley and Cook, and subsequently fellow prized freshmen Kosta Koufos and Byron Mullens to the NBA draft after one-then-done seasons.
Imagine how good the current Buckeyes might be if Evan Turner, the consensus national player of the year and the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, had come back for his senior season.