It’s been quite a week for the Ohio State basketball program.
If you’ve been out of the country, or comatose, you may not yet be aware of the news: Ohio State fired Thad Matta on Monday. No coach in Buckeyes history had more wins than Matta. But after three consecutive struggling seasons, and with another round of mass defections (the early departure of Trevor Thompson, JaQuan Lyle quitting the team, David Bell transferring, and Kam Williams prematurely considering the NBA), it seemed the time was right for a change at the helm in Columbus.
When announcing the move during a joint news conference with Matta, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was clear as to what really motivated the program’s unexpected transition: Recruiting.
“It was primarily obviously about recruiting,” Smith said when asked what prompted a seemingly out-of-the-blue, state-of-the-program meeting with Matta in June of all times. “We weren’t winning the battles in recruiting that I thought we had a chance to win.”
Smith doubled down on that idea, stating unequivocally that the next man in the captain’s chair of the Ohio State basketball program will recruit well, especially in Ohio.
“The next person that we attract,” Smith said, “will have a major focus in Ohio and actually a 150- to 200-mile radius. That’s very important.”
Though the Buckeyes “nationwide” search has seen a dozen ups and downs already — just look at the Land of 10 homepage — maybe Smith and Ohio State should focus their lens close to home, as well.
Jeremiah Francis, the son of Buckeyes legend Jerry Francis, is one of the country’s top 2019 prospects, and he plays at Pickerington Central High School, about 20 miles away from the Ohio State campus. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Francis knows exactly who he wants to take over for Matta: The first person Ohio State interviewed this week.
“I mean, I understand why they fired Coach Matta,” Francis, who was offered a scholarship by the Buckeyes in February, told Land of 10 on Wednesday night. “I really feel bad about the situation, because he’s a great mentor to a lot of kids. Right now I really hope Chris Jent gets the job.”
Jent, despite being born in California and growing up in New Jersey, is a Buckeye through and through. He was a member of four Ohio State teams in the early 1990s, some of the best teams in school history, and has cut his teeth coaching on a professional level. Who better to understand what it means to put on the Ohio State jersey and to guide players to the NBA, where he both played and worked for multiple organizations in coaching and developmental roles?
This is the guy who was LeBron James’ personal shooting coach. To have a coach with an NBA pedigree and a college soul? That’s what recruits are looking for, according to Francis.
“That would be really good,” he continued. “To have a person with an NBA mind at the college level. He catches my eye a lot because he knows the NBA game and I want to make it there. I’m sure he can develop players.”
As new names pop up daily for Ohio State — the Thursday soup du jour was Butler’s Chris Holtmann — perhaps the winning recipe is just down the hall. Maybe there’s no need for an interim tag, but instead a need to hand over the reins of Matta’s program to a man who understood Matta’s approach, values and ideals and who can still promote a new and exciting energy. Jent was an Ohio State assistant a year ago and helped recruit players like Darius Bazley, who decommitted in April, and Justin Ahrens, who decommitted on Tuesday. But he’s capable of being more than just a stop gap.
Ohio’s best prospects are watching, and though many believe Buckeyes basketball doesn’t move the dial the way football does, for players who grew up watching Mike Conley, Greg Oden, Jared Sullinger and others, that era of Ohio State basketball did mean something.
Francis wants to be a part of that turnaround, to bring the program back to the place his father helped elevate it. He told Land of 10 that he felt he could be a program-changer when the Buckeyes offered him.
“I believe there is still pride in Ohio State hoops and they want hometown favorites, kids that have watched [Ohio State] in high school,” he said. “It’s appealing because Value City Arena is dead. I feel like I’m a program-changer and could help wake Columbus back up again, like how Mike Conley and those guys did.”
Value City Arena is dead. Ohio State basketball is on life support. But there’s hope and Francis, a Buckeye legacy, believes Jent is the guy to do the job — and thinks it has to happen soon.
“It does make it a big priority now, to turn it around,” he said. “They are bringing in a new head coach. He has to be able to do something really quick to get the program going again. It’d be nice if they’d hire in a leader who gets it.”
It is what it means to be a Buckeye. Chris Jent, more than anyone Ohio State’s administration has interviewed, gets it. Even if he’s not the new head coach at Ohio State, Francis says he hopes Jent is retained by the person who is because if he ends following in his father’s footsteps, he believes he can become a better player by working with him.
“I hope he gets the job,” Francis reiterated. “But, if he doesn’t, I hope he is still able to remain on the staff if they bring someone new in.”