Despite Ups and Downs, Thad Matta Deserves Credit With Young Buckeyes

Tony CastriconeCorrespondent IFebruary 16, 2009

Imagine this starting lineup: junior Mike Conley, sophomore Evan Turner, junior Daequan Cook, sophomore Kosta Koufos, junior Greg Oden.

First, there's the jaw-dropping realization that it's possible all of those first-round NBA Draft picks could be Ohio State Buckeyes this year. Then, upon further inspection, it's apparent: That's still a relatively young, senior-less basketball team.

But Thad Matta would take it. That lineup would be light years more experienced than the group with which he is working this season.

A frustrating 55-50 loss at Wisconsin Saturday night leaves Ohio State fans wondering where the glass ceiling lies with this year's young bunch, which has lost everyone but Turner from the aforementioned list.

Some cynics in Columbus counted closely Saturday night to see which number would get higher: the Buckeyes' turnover tally, or the Badgers' offensive boards, both of which have been year-long issues with this group. Both are telltale signs of youth.

"It's funny. The guys that won the game for Wisconsin were their seniors," Matta said during his post-game radio interview. "(Marcus) Landry and (Joe) Krabbenhoft, I mean, look at their stat lines. Those guys made the plays down the stretch when they had to."

There is no bigger victim of college basketball's one-and-done culture than the Buckeyes.

As the season progresses, it's looking clearer and clearer where this year's Ohio State team lies in college basketball's grand scheme. It is the epitome of a seven seed. No stunning wins over Top Five teams. No embarrassing defeats to lowly cellar-dwellers. Ohio State is plain ol' good. Nothing more, nothing less.

They've got a handful of talent, but thanks to NBA defections and an ego-induced transfer, that talent is rawer than an open wound.

Turner's a leader and a game-changer, but he habitually turns the ball over. Sophomore Jon Diebler's a shooter, but can't create his own shot. The team's one veteran leader, David Lighty, is gone with a broken foot. Freshman B.J. Mullens has all the tools to be a star, but his hands aren't strong enough to hold together a Big Mac, let alone post up in the Big Ten.

Maybe worst of all, there's no true point guard on the team. There was, but freshman Anthony Crater took his ball and went home because he wasn't the superstar he wanted to be by mid-December of his rookie campaign.

Yet, in spite of the obstacles, Ohio State has collected five wins against Top 25 teams, not including a home court handling of then-unranked Butler. As long as they don't let Iowa or Northwestern nip them in the final weeks, the Bucks are back in the big bracket.

Simply being in the NCAA Tournament could be considered a successful year by any objective, realistic analysis. Columbus' standards for success run a little high, thanks to a football team that has won four straight titles in a rather non-competitive conference.

But in basketball, when Michigan beats teams like Duke and UCLA and Northwestern knocks off Michigan State in East Lansing, just finishing in the top half of the league gives you a chance to dance come March.

Matta has won two conference titles in the last three years, and an NIT championship in the other. He's been to the Final Four, and he's amassed a 102-29 record (.779) since the start of the 2005-06 season. The truth is, Ohio State basketball hasn't been this good in almost 50 years, when guys named Lucas, Havlicek, and Knight were running around.

Imagine what they could be if Matta had simply arrived 20 years earlier, in an era where the very best turned pro after three years instead of one.

What's a coach to do? Pass on the home run recruits for a four-year promise, or take a chance and hope for the best with short, but sugar-coated, college careers?

Which brings Matta to the next predicament: What's his team going to look like next year? Turner, Mullens, and freshman William Buford would all do well to get more college seasoning before turning in their textbooks for NBA dough.

But will everyone return for a chance at a national championship, or will Matta, who has no scholarships to hand out as of now, have to go back to the JUCO well to glue another roster together after all his stars walk out?

The Buckeyes have a killer recruiting class lined up for 2010, but it will need some direction from senior leaders—the type of direction Ron Lewis provided in 2007. Matta has no control over whether or not he'll have veteran leadership that year. That's up to his players.

Would they rather star in a Final Four, or ride the pine in an imminently forgettable Oklahoma City vs. New Jersey game on a Friday night?

I guess it comes down to how much coin you want in your wallet for the post-game festivities.