Ohio State coach enjoying busy NCAA tournament run
It's 10 o'clock on a Monday night in mid-March, the early NIT games are over and even avid basketball fans across the country are about to call it a day. That's when Ohio State coach Thad Matta gets around to answering his stack of phone messages.
``I'm just sitting down to dinner with my family,'' he says.
Some 14 hours into what is a day off for his players, Matta is bone tired yet exhilarated. He thinks of the more than 300 Division I coaches out there who aren't busy right now, who don't have a game for which to prepare.
Fans look at Ohio State and its coach and think their success - a 29-7 record, a date with Tennessee in the round of 16 on Friday night in St. Louis - is a product of recruiting, plain and simple. After all, don't the Buckeyes have perhaps the very best player in the nation in Evan Turner?
And wasn't it Matta who cajoled one of the great recruiting classes ever, dubbed The Thad Five, to come to Ohio State three years ago? That group included 7-foot center Greg Oden, coach-on-the-floor Mike Conley Jr. and superlative shooter Daequan Cook coming off the bench. They all left for the NBA after one season, taken in the first round of the draft.
Asked if it grates him that people consider him a recruiter first and a coach second, Matta laughed.
``No, it doesn't bother me,'' he said Tuesday. ``I'm one of those guys, I just wake up every day, go to work and do the best that I can.''
In his 10 years as a head coach - one at his alma mater, Butler, three at Xavier and the last six at Ohio State - each of Matta's teams has won at least 20 games. All three schools are still alive in the round of 16.
Remember, as a freshman Turner struggled and didn't look anything like the player he is now. Unlike some who are marked for the pros before they learn to shave, Turner had to grow into his talent.
``Once you get here, it's so tough,'' he said of his maturation under Matta. ``My first two months here, I didn't pass the 3-point line. I definitely wasn't ready for college. I had the roughest time ever here. I wasn't sure if I could play at this level.''
Yet Matta has brought out the best in him and his team. Even when Turner sat out more than a month with broken bones in his back earlier this season, the coach helped the Buckeyes hang on.
``When we started off 1-3 in the Big Ten, he really stayed positive with us,'' Turner said of Matta. ``He was telling us that we need to take it one game at a time and come back and do what we need to do to try to finish off strong. And that's what happened.''
And it has been years in the making.
When Matta took over in 2004, Jim O'Brien had been fired after acknowledging he had given money to a recruit's family, and the Buckeyes were coming off a 14-16 season. And a month into Matta's first season, athletic director Andy Geiger announced Ohio State would not go to any postseason tournament to mitigate penalties.
The next year, Ohio State won the Big Ten regular-season title with a makeshift team built around a too-small center, Terence Dials. Then came the most acclaimed recruiting class at Ohio State since Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Bob Knight came to town in 1959. The 2006-7 Buckeyes went 35-4, lost to Florida in the national championship game and then lost Oden and others to the NBA.
``You won't out-game plan Thad Matta. You won't outcoach him,'' said Tennessee's Bruce Pearl, whose teams have faced the Buckeyes three times with Matta on the sideline. ``He'll do a very good job with his team and the schemes that they run.''
With most of the stars gone, Matta brought in a highly acclaimed 7-footer, Kosta Koufos, another one-and-done recruit. The Buckeyes went 24-13, missed the NCAA field but won the NIT.
Turner, a whip-thin 6-7 point guard, came in the next season but couldn't find a position. David Lighty, the last remaining member of the Thad Five at Ohio State, broke his foot seven games in and didn't play the rest of the year. Still, the Buckeyes went 22-11 and made it into the NCAA tournament before another blue-chip recruit, 7-foot sub B.J. Mullens, left for the NBA.
Lighty, one of the stars on this year's Big Ten regular-season and conference tournament champ, credits Matta for the program's resilience.
``He allows you to go out and be yourself and play basketball the way you like to play basketball,'' he said. ``I don't think he restricts you or tells you not to do this, don't do that, out on the court. It makes it fun for you.''
Matta has been aged by his profession. Although he and his wife, Barbara, have two young daughters, he looks older than his 42 years, with a receding hairline and a slight limp that is the result of back surgery that didn't come out right. He no longer jumps into practices to show his charges some of the skills he displayed as a Butler player.
And it's clear he's relishing another busy March.
``You've got to enjoy what you're doing,'' he said. ``Coaching is coaching. There's always the next battle to fight. You get into a routine of preparation and coaching your team. Don't look behind, don't look ahead. What do we have to do right now?''
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.