Matta proud of last season’s run, knows repeat will be tough
The Associated Press
COLUMBUS — Seconds after Greg Oden was picked No. 1 by Portland in the NBA Draft last week, Ohio State coach Thad Matta turned to Oden’s mother and said, “Zoe, can you imagine if he had come back how high he could have gone?”
Matta laughs long and hard on a warm July afternoon. He’s had his share of thrills and chills over the past few months since riding the efforts of freshmen Oden and No. 4 pick Mike Conley Jr. to a 35-4 record and the runner-up spot in the NCAA Tournament.
After that record season melted away, Matta went along to New York to see Oden and Conley — high school teammates in Indianapolis — become instant millionaires. Another freshman, Daequan Cook, the Buckeyes’ sixth man, was taken with the 21st pick in the first round by Philadelphia and traded to the Miami Heat.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a program that had three freshmen drafted in the first round,” Matta said proudly.
The NBA’s gain is a loss for Ohio State and its energetic third-year head coach, who turns 40 on July 11.
Matta now must deal with the impact of the three players leaving early. On top of that, he had back surgery recently and has yet to regain the feeling in his right foot.
“The back feels good though,” he said with a laugh. “I’m up and around. I’ve got a cane and I’m hobbling around,” he said. “But believe me, this is hard for me because I go so much.”
Matta has taken little time to look back on the Buckeyes’ rise to No. 1 in the polls last season, a second consecutive Big Ten title and the impressive trip through the NCAA Tournament.
A year ago, the excitement was building because Oden, Conley, Cook, classmate David Lighty and junior-college transfer Othello Hunter — dubbed “The Thad Five” — were just getting acclimated to Ohio State.
A lot has changed in those 12 months.
“Somebody said, ‘Poor Thad, losing three freshmen in the draft,’” Matta recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, we had three guys reach a dream. That, to me, is what we’re in this for.’ I’d say looking into their eyes and seeing that smile on their faces, that was probably the greatest thing I’ll take away from the night of the draft.”
The talent pool is still pretty deep for the Buckeyes, despite losing the three freshmen along with seniors Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris.
Jamar Butler will be directing traffic for a fourth year at a guard spot. Lighty is coming off a series of fine postseason games and is a member of an international team that will play for the under-19 world championship in Serbia later this month.
The 6-foot-9 Hunter and 6-8 Matt Terwilliger provided depth behind Oden a year ago, while 6-10 Kyle Madsen is eligible after sitting out a year since his transfer from Vanderbilt.
The Buckeyes also will have another talented group of incoming freshmen, including the top two players in the state last season in 6-7 Jon Diebler and 7-1 Kosta Koufos. They are joined by 6-9 Dallas Lauderdale and swingmen Evan Turner and Eric Wallace.
“The biggest thing for us is we have so many unanswered questions,” Matta said. “Last year we only had one starter back. We’re in exactly the same boat again. There’s going to be a lot of teaching, a lot of hard work and we’re going to have to jell as a team. That’s a good thing — we’ve got great kids coming in. From that aspect, We’re going to be in good shape.”
The coach’s back may take longer.