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Headline: Dynasty in the Making
(From Aug. 2005)
By Steve Helwagen
Thad Matta had not even been on the job at Ohio State for one full year.
And yet, here was Matta, going into hostile territory in Indiana and bringing out two of the state's top basketball prospects.
Matta, who accepted the OSU job on July 9, 2004, had done the unthinkable. He had pulled off the impossible. On June 29, 2005, Matta accepted verbal commitments from Indianapolis Lawrence North teammates Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr.
Oden, a 7-0 center renowned as the nation's No. 1 senior-to-be, and his talented point guard teammate Conley joined Ohio's top two prospects, guards Daequan Cook of Dayton Dunbar and David Lighty of Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph, in forming the nucleus of what was being hailed as one of the best recruiting classes in school history – if not all of college basketball.
All four of the players were ranked among the nation's top 25 in their class by ScoutHoops.com. Comparisons were made immediately to classes hauled in by the likes of Duke, North Carolina and, especially, Michigan's famed Fab Five of 1991.
"There's never going to be another Fab Five," Oden said. "They were the first. But what we're going to do is come in and work on winning the national championship."
And there were indications that Matta, who still had three scholarships at his disposal as Bucknuts went to press in mid-July, was not done. He and his staff were still tracking a number of nationally ranked power forward prospects, including Thaddeus Young of Memphis, Tenn., and Raymar Morgan of Canton (Ohio) McKinley.
Matta's success on the recruiting trail was already becoming legendary.
"I wasn't around in 1960 for the class where Fred Taylor brought in Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and the rest," said HoopScoopOnline.com Ohio editor Chris Johnson. "But this is pretty good. I guess the one interesting thing about it is they got a guy at every position. They are a power forward away from having the ‘perfect class.' They got a center, a point guard and a couple of wings. And they could theoretically add two more guys.
"The other thing that is notable is everybody – and especially all of the younger kids – knows who Greg Oden is. This establishes, for however long he is there, a credibility for not only kids around Ohio but around the country."
Matta has wasted no time in putting the pieces in place for what could be a bright future.
"They did it because this guy is a charismatic leader," said Dave Telep, national recruiting editor for ScoutHoops.com. "He is passionate about recruiting. He has managed to transcend any of the negativity. He has not been fooled by any of the curveballs that have come his way. He has been selling these kids on Ohio State and himself and on the relationship they have with each other."
The entire scenario of events was somewhat remarkable. Here was Ohio State, racked just last summer with a laundry list of NCAA violations committed during the Jim O'Brien era. Matta, riding a white horse up I-71 after leading Xavier to the 2004 NCAA Elite Eight, was summoned to put the program back up on its feet.
According to Oden, it wasn't long after Matta's arrival in Columbus that he made recruiting Oden, Conley and their AAU teammate Cook a top priority.
"(OSU assistant Dan) Peters said a year ago, when Coach Matta got this job, he said, ‘We need to go after Oden and Conley,' " Oden said. "(Peters) said, ‘I looked at him and was like, this guy's crazy.' But he really did have a vision."
Indeed, Matta saw to it that Oden, Conley and Cook were at Ohio Stadium last September for OSU's football season opener against Cincinnati. He stayed with the trio through the fall and on into the winter.
In answering the NCAA allegations, OSU self-imposed a one-year postseason ban. That did not dim the enthusiasm, though, for the Buckeyes – who would go on and upset No. 1-ranked and previously unbeaten Illinois – or the players they were recruiting. Matta, in fact, showed his devotion to Oden and Conley by attending one of their tournament games on the eve of that Illinois upset.
"That showed us how much we meant to him and his program," Conley said.
The Buckeyes hit the front page, of course, with their win over Illinois. Cook attended that game unofficially. Weeks later, he played in the Division II state final four at the Schottenstein Center. A few days after that, his recruiting process was over and he had verbaled to Ohio State.
That verbal gave OSU a matter of leverage with Oden and Conley as Cook went to work on his Spiece Indy Heat AAU teammates. Lighty soon followed suit with a verbal of his own.
In May, Oden and Conley made an official visit to Ohio State. Matta took that opportunity to charm their socks off. He, personally, picked them up in Indiana and drove them to and from the visit. During the course of that visit, Matta – a former Butler player, assistant and head coach in Indianapolis – launched into a dead-on impersonation of longtime Lawrence North coach Jack Keefer.
"That was the funniest thing I ever saw," Oden said. "I was literally crying in the back seat of the car. I thought I was going to lose it. It was unbelievable."
Conley added, "It was unlike any other coach to do that. It just amazed me that he would do something like that. That's why I like him so much. It's like he is one of us."
Matta also impressed the players and their families with a presentation on how he planned to use the Lawrence North pair. All of these things gave Matta and OSU a decided edge over Wake Forest, North Carolina, Michigan State, Indiana and other schools that had been in the running.
But Oden was waiting to see what the NBA and its players union would do with the proposed age restriction. After all, there were many who believed that Oden could have been the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NBA draft straight out of high school. But once the league and its players agreed on the age restriction in late June, the plan was in motion for Oden and Conley to end the suspense and verbal to Ohio State. In fact, The Indianapolis Star reported days before the press conference at the school that Oden would play his college ball at Ohio State.
"I was always looking at college," Oden revealed. "I was looking at the draft last night and they were drafting guys, and I was like, ‘Why are they drafting him? They're drafting off potential.' I want to be good enough that when they draft me I want people to understand why they drafted me."
Oden was asked about how long he would stay in college before declaring for the NBA draft. He replied by saying that academics come first and did not give a timetable for when the NBA decision might come.
"From a basketball standpoint, however long it takes to feel that I'm developed enough to be an NBA-type player," he said.
Oden, who carries 245 pounds on his 7-0 frame, is the reigning USA Today and Gatorade national player of the year. He would have to be considered – perhaps in line with Middletown, Ohio, standout Jerry Lucas in 1958 – as the biggest recruit in program history – both literally and figuratively.
The 6-1 Conley is also an impact player as a point guard, ranking as the nation's fourth-best point guard and No. 24 prospect overall by Scout.com. His father, Mike Conley Sr., is a former Olympic track athlete and college coach. He also coaches their AAU team.
"We have decided for the best place to accomplish our future goals was at The Ohio State University," Oden and Conley announced in unison at the beginning of the conference.
Matta's presence and the rest of the OSU staff played a big part in the decision, as Oden stated that he had a good idea he wanted to go to OSU in April after the staff came to school for a visit.
"I kind of knew after they came into the school, but (Mike Conley Sr.) told me to calm down and give every school a chance," Oden said.
Conley added that Matta's ability to relate to the players helped him feel comfortable with the coach.
"When I'm around him, I feel like I'm talking to one of my friends," Conley said.
Conley seemed relieved to have his decision over with, but Oden said he never felt too much hassle over the constant questions about where he was going to college.
"Just a little bit of pressure," Oden said. "All it is, is a two-minute question in an interview, so it's not that bad."
Cook's commitment had a definite influence on the final decision.
"It was an influence because before then, Ohio State wasn't at the top of my list but when he committed, I took a deeper look and found out that maybe this is the place for me," Conley said.
Conley feels the quality of the recruiting class could mean big things to come.
"I hope that the other recruits that Ohio State is getting is as good as people say and we turn out to be as good (as people say)," Conley said. "With Thad Matta coaching, I feel we can get as far as the national championship."
Oden added that playing with his friend Conley will be a big part of his growth as a player.
"It's important for me because he makes me better," Oden said. "I just know that being with Mike will help me develop to the player I want to be."
Reporters from Indiana grilled the players on why they chose OSU and not tradition laden Indiana. Conley admitted he never saw himself fitting into Indiana coach Mike Davis' system. Instead, he is excited about playing for Matta at OSU.
"Their whole game plan, their style, it fits me," he said. "I feel I can make an impact in that system. The university is huge. I like the big-time schools. Everything about the university is great.
"(Matta) said a lot of creative things to express his vision of us going to that school. He wants to win the national championship. All the goals he had, we think we can make possible. We believed everything he had to say."
The verbal commitments made by all four of the players in this class are non-binding. These players are expected to sign letters-of-intent for OSU in November and would enroll at OSU in the fall of 2006.
Oden and Conley helped Lawrence North win a second consecutive Class 4A state championship this past March.
As a junior, Oden averaged 20.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. He earned USA Today, Gatorade and Parade magazine national player of the year honors. As a sophomore, Oden averaged 13.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
Conley averaged 10.9 points and 5.1 assists per game as a junior.
As sophomores, the duo helped Lawrence North go 29-2. Oden had 13 points and 12 rebounds and Conley had nine points and five assists in the team's 50-29 state championship game win over Columbia City.
This past season, they led Lawrence North to a 24-2 mark and a No. 6 national ranking in USA Today. In the team's 63-52 state title game win over Muncie Central, Oden hit 14 of 19 shots from the floor and finished with 29 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots. Conley had seven points and four assists in the title game. Oden blocked 18 shots in Lawrence North's 60-45 sectional semifinal win over previously unbeaten and nationally ranked Arlington.
In earning the Gatorade award, Oden joins LeBron James as only the second junior to win that honor.
Oden and Conley have been busy this spring and summer, competing with the Spiece Indy Heat in AAU events, attending the USA Basketball Festival in San Diego, participating in an all-star exhibition series against Indiana's top graduating seniors and attending team camp with Lawrence North at Purdue. They also attended the Reebok ABCD Camp July 5-9 in Teaneck, N.J.
The USA Basketball Festival, held in mid-June, serves as a feeder program for USA Basketball as it prepares players for future competition in the World Championships and Olympics. Oden helped lead his team to the tournament championship, besting a field of two other U.S. teams and four squads from abroad.
In five games there, he averaged 17.0 points (fourth overall), 7.6 rebounds (fifth), 2.8 blocks (second) and shot 74.4 percent from the floor (first). He also averaged 26 minutes a game. Conley averaged 6.6 points and 3.6 assists (fifth) per game.
The players returned home and participated in a three-game exhibition series against Indiana's graduating senior all-star team. In that series, Oden averaged 20.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots per game. Oden had 29 points and eight rebounds in a thrilling 119-112 triple overtime loss on June 21.
Conley averaged 15 points and five assists in that series, including a 24-point, 10-assist, zero-turnover showing in the juniors' 109-96 upset win on June 23.
Most viewed Wake Forest as the team to beat for Conley. His father confirmed as much. But things changed when Cook declared for OSU.
"That was when he realized there were other places out there that might suit him, and that Daequan wasn't going to Wake Forest," Conley Sr. said. "Before that, I think he was hoping Daequan would go to Wake Forest and make things easier. But that started shifting at that point."
For Oden's mother, Zoe, it was an easy choice.
She said that from the very time she met Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, she trusted him to coach her son. That's why she was sold on Ohio State.
"I felt like he was going to take care of my son and that he would help him with basketball, academics and life," Oden said of Matta. "I felt really comfortable with Ohio State."
She sensed her son really wanting to attend Ohio State after returning from the official visit on May 8.
"He was pretty stuck on Ohio State at that time," she said. "After that I think he just wanted to be fair to the other schools and listen to them."
Cook's hard work in swaying his AAU teammates had paid off.
"I'm very excited about this," said Cook, who drove in from Dayton to attend the announcement. "I'm excited for them and for me. I really was hoping they would go to Ohio State with me, but I didn't want to pressure them and now people don't have to ask if they would go with me."
Keefer said he did little to steer the players in any direction.
"The choices they had were excellent," he said. "I don't think they could have gone wrong with any choice they would have made. It is unbelievable how they have been treated and how the college coaches have treated them with respect. They gave them their space to make a decision."
Telep marveled at how such talented players are content to stow their own personal goals to help achieve success as a team.
"It takes a special group of kids to do this," Telep said. "It is one thing to be friends. But it's an entirely different thing to not be selfish. What's unique is they all play different positions. They will never have to compete with each other for playing time. From that standpoint, Ohio State is very fortunate to recruit this group of guys.
"It's a credit to the kids to put their egos aside and come together. They could have each gone different places and been the focal point by themselves. It's a credit to them to be unselfish and see the bigger picture."
Whether Matta and staff can prolong their recruiting success or not, it is clear that expectations for the OSU program – which has been to one Final Four since 1968 and claimed just four Big Ten regular season titles since 1971 – are about to go through the roof.
"Without a doubt, when you have the best recruiting class in the country, that brings Final Fours and national championships into the equation," Johnson said. "That is where the bar is now set. It is set at the highest level."
Kyle Lamb contributed to this report.