A year ago, Thad Matta and Ohio State were preparing for what they expected to be a big 2015 basketball season. The Buckeyes were welcoming in a top-ranked recruiting class – the Big Ten’s best and the No. 5 class in the country – and a number of key returning starters like Jae’Sean Tate, Marc Loving and Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson.
As the dust settled on the 2015-16 campaign, however, the optimism that permeated the program had all but disappeared. So too had that freshman class: four of the five 2015 signees transferred out of Ohio State.
If you’re expecting pessimism out of Matta, heading into his 13th season at the helm for the Buckeyes, guess again.
“I’m very excited with where we are at this particular juncture of the season. Guys are finishing up finals, most guys are done, got a couple guys that are doing something today,” Matta told media gathered at the Schottenstein Center on Tuesday afternoon. “I think from what we set out to do in terms of starting back on June 7 or whatever it was, just really trying to reestablish the culture in our program. I think from the standpoint of getting back to the basics in terms of how we do things on a daily basis and guys being completely accountable for everything they have to do on and off the court.”
In June, Ohio State center Trevor Thompson spoke similarly, stating the Buckeyes had to rebuild the program using the proud tradition of the past as a guide. Matta himself, speaking at an off-campus event, said he was “tired of the B.S.” that had made its way into the program.
To refresh the program, getting back to basics is the key, even if he’s less than certain how far they deviated from the basics or how it happened.
“I think there’s a conglomeration of things just in terms of how we recruited and just trying to make sure that everybody we bring in here has an understanding that this university is far greater than any of us,” Matta said. “Everybody has an obligation to uphold and do what’s best, not only for the university, but for our program. I think from that juncture looking back at how we’ve done things in the past and understanding, kind of reevaluating everything across the board in terms of the program.
“Like I said, I like the changes we made.”
Those changes are most obvious in the 2016 recruiting class, which arrived on campus just over a month ago. Those young guys haven’t played a minute of college basketball yet, but Matta sees a hungry and focused group.
“I love these four guys we have in here. I’ve been very, very – I don’t want to say surprised because we know what kind of guys we have here – but very pleased with the progress they’re making both on the court and off the court. I think you’ve got a group of guys that are definitely here for the right reason and have an understanding and appreciation. With that said I’ve got great confidence that those guys are going to be contributors this year.”
The Buckeyes highest-ranked signee, 6-foot-9, 210-pound forward Derek Funderburk Jr., is one player that Matta says will absolutely contribute this season. The Northeast Ohio native will bring a bit of flexibility to a lineup that will look very different from last year.
“I think Derek definitely gives us the ability to play a little bit bigger. Through testing this summer, his athleticism was off the charts. He’s made a lot of strides in the right direction just in terms of his overall game,” Matta said of Funderburk, the country’s 74th-ranked 2016 prospect. “He’s thirsty for knowledge, he’s got a pretty good understanding of how to play and I think they were 49-1 last year at Hargrave and obviously at St. Edward’s (Cleveland) the years he was there they had a tremendous run. I’ve been very pleased with what he’s brought to the table. He’s got to continue to get stronger and those types of things but he’s a little bit of an Othello Hunter type just with his athleticism. He always finds the ball somehow, someway up above the rim so it should be good for us.”
After 12 straight 20-win seasons in Columbus, it’s hard to get Matta to suggest – or believe – that the Buckeyes are starting over, but when pressed he did acknowledge that there’s a little bit of a reset happening at Ohio State. The youngest Buckeyes are going to play a vital role in that reinvention.
“We had to sort of limp to the finish line (last season) with injuries and those types of things,” Matta added. “But, with that said, I think once the dust settled last year and we got back here in June, (it) sort of set the stage for what we were after and how we’re going to get there, and, where we ultimately wanted to end up. I definitely like where we are today.”