Matta’s Program Not Drawing Interest from NCAA
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There have been plenty of NCAA officials coming and going from Ohio State in recent weeks, but none have stopped in to see Thad Matta.
He would like to keep it that way.
Photo by Jim Davidson
The school’s basketball coach just might be the biggest name left on campus after the departures of football coach Jim Tressel and star quarterback Terrelle Pryor over the last week and half.
The 43-year old coach has guided the Buckeyes to five NCAA Tournaments and three Sweet 16 appearances—including a trip to the national championship game—since taking over the program in 2004.
He has put Ohio State basketball back on the map by doing things the right way.
“I think we have always tried to be as thorough as we possibly can with everything that we do,” said Matta, who has signed some of the biggest high school prospects in the country during his time as a head coach.
“Obviously we have talked to our players as things unfold to make sure we do the right things and we do it the right way.”
Matta recently had two of his players drawn into the football scandal when The Columbus Dispatch reported that William Buford and Jon Diebler were among the Ohio State athletes who purchased cars from salesman Aaron Kniffin, who worked for Jack Maxton Chevrolet and Auto Direct.
Kniffin has since denied that he gave any players a special discount on their vehicle, but even if he did, Matta isn’t worried about his guys being targeted.
“(Will) and Jon both bought cars, but everything is legit,” Matta said Wednesday.
“If you saw the cars they bought, you wouldn’t think twice.”
One of the first things Matta did when he took over the program back in 2004 was to pull his players out of the Worthington Summer League.
“Our guys back then were missing class to save up energy for the games,” Matta said.
The games usually featured current Buckeyes playing with and against former Ohio State basketball players, but it was not sanctioned by the university and therefore was not a controlled situation for Matta’s players.
It left them exposed to anyone who felt like dropping by, and Matta knew all-too-well that when that kind of talent is exposed, the sharks will quickly circle in.
“I think that's something we tried to do from the standpoint of tightening our circle and moving guys back onto campus,” he said.
“We check out where they are living. We want them as close to campus as possible. The main thing I wanted when doing all of that is that making sure all of our guys were together and trying to build the culture we were trying to build.”
That culture might trickle down from Matta and his coaching staff, but the foundation is only as strong as the players who embrace it. That is why Matta has always prided himself on finding the right “character” guys for his program.
That’s a lot easier to do when he only has to recruit 12 guys for his roster, instead of 85 like Tressel and other Division I football coaches, but the emphasis once they get the kids on campus is always the same.
“We always try to talk to our guys, don’t change who you are because you’re in this position because of who you are right now,” Matta said.
“My biggest gauge of our players is how they interact with their teammates. If we start to see a sign that they are becoming about them then we try to address that issue as quickly as possible.”
That seemed to be one of the issues with Terrelle Pryor during his time at Ohio State, but that doesn’t mean Matta would have turned him away as a recruit. In fact, the two had some interaction during the recruiting process back when Pryor was also a top-flight basketball prospect at Jeannette High School.
“I am compassionate to Terrelle. I don’t know him real well. I talked to him a couple times when I see him around. I think about the pressures,” said Matta, who always joked about talking to Tressel about getting Pryor on the court.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Had Greg (Oden) stayed, I don’t think Jared (Sullinger) will be in that light, but so much of it is uncontrollable.”
Before Pryor was even on the radar for Ohio State fans, Greg Oden was the biggest prospect in the country, literally. The freakishly athletic 7-footer signed with the Buckeyes in 2006, and along with high school teammate Mike Conley Jr., helped to lead Ohio State to the NCAA championship game.
Oden was then selected by the Portland Trailblazers with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, but he was never the kind of kid to let all the fame and publicity go to his head.
“After practice one night, Greg and I were sitting in the arena and I said, ‘Greg, you were a 4.0 high school student and you’re a 3.8 student here at Ohio State. I don’t get it. You’re worth millions of dollars,’” Matta said.
“And he said, ‘coach, it’s my reputation. It’s my name.’ I thought that put into light who he was as a person.”
But not everyone can recruit the top players in the country the way Matta has and still end up with kids as humble as Greg Oden, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger.
“I think college athletics across the board have become a monster. Trying to make sure you do things the right way and be as thorough as you possibly can in what you're attempting to do (is important),” Matta said.
“We have a job to do and I feel very confident in how we have done the job to this point and we are going to continue to do it the exact same way.”
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