Despite Vast NBA Losses, Matta Keeps Reloading at Ohio State

By Kyle Rowland on April 6, 2014 at 6:00 am

Transitioning comes frequently in the game of basketball. Each play involves switching from offense to defense and visa versa, and the fast break is one of the sport’s staples. For coaches, there’s constant evolution, be it roster changes or staff moves.

Thad Matta’s basketball life at Ohio State has been in constant transition for a decade.

For 10 seasons, he’s dealt with players leaving for the NBA, assistant coaches taking over their own programs and a heightened outlook from a fervent fan base. Aside from winning a national championship, Matta’s exceeded any and all expectations.

The Buckeyes’ basketball profile has been raised significantly, with the program on the cusp of being considered elite. They’ve won numerous Big Ten championships, 20 games for 10 straight seasons and advanced to two Final Fours. And Matta’s kept the train chugging despite losing 10 players to the pros.

“The thing you have to do is do the research,” Matta said. “I always want what’s best for our guys.”

Sometimes that’s advising them to chase their professional dreams. What’s been best for Matta is building his team through recruiting and then developing those players into contributors. Matta spent 11 seasons as an assistant – at Indiana State, Butler, Miami (OH) and Western Carolina – where exhausting days and weeks on the road meant learning tricks and secrets that would one day make him one of the top recruiters in the country.

There’s creativity – placing cutouts of the number 3 in an envelope for deadeye shooters – and being chic. Matta famously sets the radio in his car to hip-hop stations to impress prospects, giving off a cool vibe. With 17- and 18-year-old kids, the coolness factor can’t be underestimated. At 46, Matta must still possess a certain youthful air, even though he admits to not knowing what Twitter is or how it functions. But a fun brand of basketball is a universal language.

After a 25-10 season, there are murmurs that Matta’s lost his touch. Recent recruiting classes lacked the zing observers have grown familiar with. Then Matta signed another top-10 class for the 2014-15 season. The newcomers grew more impressive with the announcement that Temple power forward Anthony Lee, a graduate transfer, would enroll at Ohio State.

“It’s always a numbers game in terms of what we’re trying to do,” Matta said. “I feel like were in great position. The biggest thing is you go out in the summer and watch the guys who are committed and you leave the gym happy, and that’s how I was. I could not be happier about that.”

The latest haul is Matta’s sixth class to be ranked in the top 10, including his third in the top five. The Thad Five in 2006 served as the crowning achievement, with 2010’s group, highlighted by Jared Sulinger, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, close behind. Now comes the latest statement, a four-man recruiting class headlined by five-stars D’Angelo Russell and Keita Bates-Diop.

“It’s funny,” said Jerry Meyer, 24/7 Sports national basketball recruiting editor, “some people across the country are quick to doubt Thad and his ability to recruit. Yet, he typically brings in some great classes.

“It’s always a numbers game in terms of what we’re trying to do. I feel like we’re in great position.”– Thad Matta

“Ohio State is one of the top programs in the country. The stability and the consistency they have there has been impressive. Going into every year, I assume they could be a Final Four contender. Maybe they need a little bit of a punch here or a spark there as far talent infusion to be a team you think can win a national championship.”

Continuously replenishing talent is how Matta’s won 275 games at Ohio State, second only to Fred Taylor, and appeared in eight NCAA Tournaments. In March, LaQuinton Ross and Amedeo Della Valle joined a list that features Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos, Byron Mullens, Evan Turner, Sullinger and Thomas – players who’ve taken their talents to the NBA (or Europe) early. Sometimes three years premature.

The ensuing reclamation project will be one of the toughest of Matta’s career. It’s made easier by the incoming freshmen, but Ohio State must replace its top three scorers and top rebounder from last season, as well as Aaron Craft, whose value is unquantifiable.

“You look at his career, in my mind, in the 10 years I’ve been at Ohio State, he’s going down as one of the greatest players ever to put on the scarlet and gray,” Matta said of Craft after losing to Dayton. “I’d live and die with that kid any day of the year.”

Sam Thompson and Amir Williams are the lone returning starters, though Williams’ status is iffy due to Lee’s impending arrival. Thompson, Shannon Scott and Marc Loving will be leaned on in the non-conference schedule, if not the duration of the season. But Russell and Bates-Diop, young as they are, will shoulder much of the load on offense.

Russell, 6-foot-5, 180 pounds, is the total package at guard. The McDonald’s All-American finished with 11 points and four assists in the annual all-star game last week, offering Buckeye fans a glimpse of the future.

“The first time I ever saw him play, he had six threes in the first half, and in the second half, he didn’t take one. But he probably had 10 assists,” Matta said. “He’s just got something about him.

“He’s got the ability to make big time plays with the ball in his hands.”

Bates-Diop is a 6-foot-7, 190-pound stretch 4 whose length and athleticism makes him an exceptional player. His all-around game could present headaches even for veteran Big Ten teams. He can play near the baseline or beyond the three-point line. Bates-Diop’s shooting range is what makes defending him so difficult.

“He scores, he passes, he rebounds, he can defend, he can handle the basketball,” Matta said.

In 2006, the Buckeyes won the Big Ten title and earned a No. 2 seed behind the play of conference player of the year Terrence Dials and complementary pieces such as Je’Kel Foster and J.J. Sullinger. They lost in the national championship game the next season thanks to the best recruiting class in school history.

Suddenly, Ohio State basketball entered the national consciousness. Credit Matta with the assist.

Oden, Conley and Cook left the Buckeyes after one year. Even though the following season was Ohio State’s last without an NCAA Tournament berth, it won the NIT when Koufos dominated the competition. Evan Turner’s defection came two years later after national player of the year honors. But Matta already learned how to replace superstars by then.

“Thad runs a great program and they are always a contender every year,” Meyer said.

Coaches double as salesmen, and few have higher return rates than Matta. He’s turned a football school into one that also craves basketball. It’s now a destination program – for coaches and players.  Braxton Miller wanted to play for the Buckeyes, and so too did Jared Sullinger.

When Matta’s time at Ohio State comes to a close, a long line will form outside the athletic director’s office.

“We’ve always been blessed to attract good people,” said Gene Smith. "I think now our opportunities are unlimited. [Ohio State’s] a great place where we can attract top talent and retain it.”

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