Team preview: Ohio State

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

To his opponents, it may seem like Thad Matta is getting all the calls.

The second-year coach got his first big break in 2005 when the NBA created its age limit. All the debate around whether 7-footer Greg Oden would actually make it to campus became moot.

The question changed from will he come to will he go after a one year. For now, that is irrelevant. Oden is the most hyped true center to enter the collegiate ranks since Shaquille O'Neal. How's that for a program booster? The No. 1 overall player actually showed up to campus. Matta not just nabbed the nation's No. 1 player, but he arguably landed the No. 1 class. Some labeled it the "Thad Five" which included Oden's high school teammate Mike Conley Jr.

Not many teams can lose four starters, yet have their expectations rise the following season. That's exactly what has happened with Ohio State. Matta has a group that -- as a starting five -- could be ranked in a Top 25.

The second big break Matta received came from the NCAA Committee on Infractions. The Buckeyes had an ominous shadow of sanctions looming overhead from recruiting violations committed under coach Jim O'Brien. Such was the concern the NCAA would come down hard that Matta gave each recruit a signed guarantee that they would be released from their scholarships if OSU was banned from the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

While they did receive three years probation, the Buckeyes avoided major penalties of postseason bans and the reduction of scholarships -- in part thanks to a preemptive strike where the university held itself out of the 2005 postseason and slashed two scholarships last season.

Matta's first two years on the job have brought 20 wins each year. Buckeye fans have been giddy with excitement about the prospects of this season, so much so that they spent part of last season overlooking the team they had.

"The biggest thing I don't want people to forget last year," said Matta, of his squad that went 26-6. "Last year's team won the Big Ten, was a No. 2 seed in the tournament and finished No. 6 in the final rankings. Those guys did a great job of exceeding expectations."

Oddly enough, it's why expectations are so high this season. Matta took a team that seemed to have only average talent (Terence Dials won Big Ten Player of the Year, but was not drafted) -- and turned it into the regular season champions.

He won with under-the-radar players at Butler and Xavier before arriving at Ohio State. What do you think Matta, who also collected the 2006 Big Ten Coach-of-the-Year honor, can do with a group of skilled players?

Matta's not saying. Well, he's not making predictions anyway. While everyone else has salivated over the Buckeyes' potential this season, Matta has publicly taken a cautious stance.

"So much is yet to be determined," he said. "In the end it will come down to how quickly those guys can make adjustments to college basketball. One thing I love, the guys coming in they've all been in winning programs and have a pretty good feel for how to play the game of basketball."

Their opponents certainly know too, and will test Ohio State throughout their schedule. The Buckeyes' non-conference itinerary includes a trip to defending national champion Florida. They have a made-for-TV match-up against at North Carolina -- which adds the only 2006 recruiting class that some think tops Ohio State's. In-state rival Cincinnati gets a match-up with the Buckeyes for the first time in 45 years. Then there's a break in Big Ten play with a January game against Tennessee, like the Buckeyes a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament last March.

"We're trying to recruit the best players," Matta told the Columbus Dispatch, "so we want to play great teams and try to put this program in a situation where there are tough challenges early and hoping it makes us better for the Big Ten."

Matta's recruiting strategy is obviously working. Beside the freshmen already on campus, he's already locked up his 2007 class.

Matta purposely withheld two of his scholarships from 2006 so he could offer them to this season's recruits. The class included 7-1 center Kosta Koufos from Canton, Ohio.
It would appear Matta was preparing for life after Oden next season.

Stay tuned. Matta might give folks in Columbus reason to actually leave the 'Shoe to catch those November games in Value City Arena.