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October 26, 2006

Matta refuses to be overshadowed

Preseason Top 25
Media Days Central
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Rivals.com selected the top 25 storylines for the upcoming 2006-07 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 13 storyline focuses on the arrival of Ohio State's No. 2-ranked recruiting class.

In an unusual twist, Ohio State landed a better basketball recruiting class than football recruiting class. A lot better.

The Buckeyes signed the nation's No. 1 consensus prospect in 7-footer Greg Oden, three other top-40 recruits and one of the top junior college prospects. The group was ranked No. 2 in Rivals.com's 2006 team rankings.

How did the football-crazed Buckeyes pull off such a coup? Just how good will this make them for next season - and down the road?

The answer to the first question starts with second-year head coach Thad Matta and his staff.

Matta and assistant John Groce began recruiting Oden and five-star point guard Mike Conley, former teammates from Lawrence North High in Indianapolis, when the coaches were at Xavier more than three years ago.

Matta's ties to Indianapolis helped he started his head coaching career at Butler. But, Mike Conley, Sr., who coached Oden and his son at the AAU level, said OSU's recruiting success had more to do with the coaches' sincere approach to the recruiting game.

"There are a lot of smooth talkers and guys that can sell real well," the elder Conley said. "But the Ohio State coaches had a way of being at places without making you know it. They never made me feel overwhelmed or pushed. I'm not sure how they did it.

"Groce doesn't come across as a salesman at all. He has a certain way about him that comes off as a very honest individual, and that was very important to me."

Groce, who was selected Rivals.com's 2006 Recruiter of the Year, deserves much of the credit for putting together the tremendous group of talent. He was the lead contact for Dayton, Ohio's five-star wing Daequan Cook - the first member of the class to commit.

Just days after Ohio State knocked off then-No. 1 and undefeated Illinois in their final regular season game on March 6, Cook - a good friend of Oden and Conley - made his pledge.

Four-star guard David Lighty followed suit less than a month later. Cook and Oden, who made their only other official visit to Wake Forest, did the same in July.

JUCO transfer Othello Hunter, a 6-9 power forward, later rounded out the group.

This past season's run to the school's first outright Big Ten title in 14 years and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament helped seal the deal for the recruits.

The promise of instant playing time was also another major factor.

OSU's starting lineup was made up of four seniors last season, opening huge voids in the backcourt and frontcourt.

Many are expecting the freshmen to step into those roles and lead the Buckeyes into the national title hunt. They are in the top 10 of most preseason publications and are the favorite to win the Big Ten.

Much of that rides on the health of Oden. The big man underwent surgery to repair torn ligaments in the offseason and reportedly won't be back until the start of the Big Ten schedule in January. If that is the case, Oden would miss the Buckeyes' highly anticipated showdown at North Carolina on Nov. 29 the marquee game of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Oden's temporary absence places heavier expectations on Cook, who will need to provide a big offensive lift in the early stages of the season. Cook is certainly capable. Extremely explosive and athletic, he also possesses shooting range well beyond the 3-point line.

The Buckeyes do return two experienced players, starting point guard Jamar Butler and shooting guard Ron Lewis - last year's sixth man. Because of those veterans, Cook and Lighty will have a little more time to develop.

The Buckeyes shouldn't feel they only have a small window of opportunity, either. Even if Oden and Cook were to leave for the NBA after one season, OSU is stockpiling enough talent for a handful of potential Final Four runs.

OSU's 2007 and 2008 classes are already shaping up to rank among the nation's best. They have commitments from three top-100 juniors, including five-star center Kosta Koufos. The Buckeyes also have a pledge from sophomore center B.J. Mullens, the No. 3 overall ranked prospect in his class.

It looks like the "Thad Five" might give OSU the foundation necessary to build one of college basketball's elite programs.

Check out Rivals.com's coverage of Media Days from around the nation

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