Since his earliest days as a head coach at Ohio State, Thad Matta has cited Jim Tressel as one of his program’s biggest supporters. Now after resigning from his post as the head football coach, Tressel has continued in that role for the men’s basketball team.
With the NCAA continuing to investigate the school’s football program after a number of players have been caught trading memorabilia for discounted tattoos and other benefits, Matta has used the situation as an opportunity to encourage his own players to stay clear of trouble.
“We’ve always tried to be as thorough as we possibly can with everything that we do,” Matta said Wednesday afternoon, adding that the NCAA investigators had not spent any time with the basketball program. “Obviously we’ve talked to our players as things unfold of making sure that we do the right things and do it the right way.”
The result has been a continuation of mostly smooth sailing for the men’s basketball program, which continues to improve its standing both on and off the court.
As part of an investigation into deals between a local car dealership and a number of OSU athletes, two men’s basketball players were named as having been involved with the business in question. Matta said that transactions involving both William Buford and Jon Diebler were legit, adding, “If you saw the cars they bought …”
In the latest Academic Progress Report ratings released May 25, the program had a score of 986 last year. Coupled with the previous three years, the team posted a total four-year APR of 952, which ranks between the 50th and 60th percentile in the sport.
“Where we started it wasn’t hard to go up,” Matta joked.
In 2009, the program lost two scholarships when its rating dipped below the threshold of 925 thanks in large part to early departures by several players for the NBA. This year’s score was achieved despite freshman J.D. Weatherspoon being declared academically ineligible for winter quarter.
“That’s like winning games for us is how we try to approach it for our guys,” Matta said. “I’ve been very pleased and proud of what our guys have done in the classroom as well.”
Since Matta took over the program before the 2004-05 season, the Buckeyes have advanced to the national championship game, captured an NIT title, sent six players into the first round of the NBA draft and earned four Big Ten championships.
For that, the coach has largely credited his success at building an atmosphere within the program. From requiring players to live together on campus for several years to monitoring their off-campus living to encouraging former players to return during the summer, Matta has worked to foster an atmosphere of family within the program.
“That’s the big thing I also wanted as we did a lot of that was making sure that our guys were together and building the culture that we wanted to build,” he said. “That was something that was very important to me.”
This month, Matta and the Buckeyes will welcome a five-member freshman class to campus. The quintet will join six sophomores, one junior and a senior on next season’s roster. Included in that group is Jared Sullinger, who was named the national freshman of the year last season.
Sullinger turned down an opportunity with Team USA this summer in order to focus his energies on helping the freshmen assimilate into the program.
“I don’t ever want to take away from what a guy wants to do personally but I think in Jared’s case he knows the importance of who he is and what he means to this basketball team,” the coach said. “For Jared, he’s about one thing and one thing only and that’s winning for Ohio State. As we talked about it we threw it out there and he said I’d really rather stay here.”
Matta has had limited contact with his current players in recent weeks due to NCAA rules for this time of year but said he has received positive reports about the progression of his players.
A partial non-conference schedule was released Wednesday. The Buckeyes will host Florida (Nov. 15) and Duke (Nov. 29) and travel to Kansas on Dec. 10. According to Matta, season ticket sales for the season are already higher than they were for all of last year. An attempt to confirm those figures with OSU was not returned.
“I think (the players) know the job, the task that we have before us,” he said. “Me personally, I’ve been in and out of town a lot. Our focus is, look at that schedule. We’ve got a heck of a job to do.”
Despite the success the program has enjoyed to this point, Matta said the battle to continue down that path is ongoing.
“College athletics across the board have become a monster,” he said. “(You’re) trying to make sure that you do things the right way and be as thorough as you possibly can in what you’re attempting to do. We’ve got a job to do and I feel very confident with how we’ve done the job to this point and we’re going to continue to do it the exact same way.”
And as for his thoughts on Tressel, Matta said he can count on support from the former football coach for years to come.
“I’ve said this many times before: coach has probably been as important to our program as anybody in the things dating back to almost eight years ago when I came with here the help that he’s provided me,” he said. “Obviously I hate to see the way things ended but I do know this about him: when we tip off he’s going to be rooting as hard as he possibly can for our team to be successful. That means a lot to me.”