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“There’s not a lot of programs that have been hit with the early departures like we have,” Matta said. “But that’s part of it. I’m not making excuses, I’m OK with it.”

The ever-upbeat Matta does not countenance prima donnas or selfish players, either.

“He brings in a lot of guys with great character,” said Jon Diebler, Ohio’s leading schoolboy scorer who has developed into the Big Ten’s leading all-time leader 3-pointers. “He wants people who want to win. That’s the most important thing, guys who can kind of put their egos aside and do what’s best for the team.”

Hang around off the court and you become a cohesive unit off it: That’s the Matta Plan.

Thad’s got them playing at a high level, and he’s got them playing together,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said earlier this season. “That’s why they’re ranked No. 1 in the country.”

Matta is as meticulous in preparation as any coach, and he knows premier players love to run and dunk. So he starts with top players who can do that, then requires that they become fierce defenders to earn playing time. It’s a formula that has worked again and again.

“We have to play the way we think can win games,” Matta said. “I want our guys to enjoy being out there, I want them to play with great confidence, I want them to ‘have fun.’ But I do know that winning makes guys have fun.”

In a state that lives and dies with the Buckeyes in football and expends considerably less emotional capital on the basketball squad, Matta has built a solid foundation.

With the football program in turmoil in the wake of coach Jim Tressel violating NCAA bylaws and then covering it up, the basketball program has become a point of pride in Ohio.

Will it ever remotely compare with the wildly popular football team, such a part of the fabric of the state and university? The larger point is that the question is no longer laughable, as it was seven years ago.

“When you’re Ohio State, of course everyone thinks of the Horseshoe and the great football tradition,” said Lighty, who has been a part of a school-record 129 wins in his five seasons. “But I think it’s starting to kind of be a dual-sport school now. As we continue to hopefully get better and make history, things will hopefully change around and we’ll be up there competing with the football team on the same level nationally.”