Babb: Why The Big Ten Needs Thad Matta

A year after placing two teams in the Final Four, the Big Ten conference came to this year's men's NCAA Basketball Tournament with high expectations. But after the Big Ten teams performed poorly, many were left to wonder if the conference is overrated. But Charles Babb says the future of the Big Ten will be helped by the strong performance of OSU head coach Thad Matta. Read on for more.

This past season, the Big Ten was widely considered the toughest basketball conference in the nation. Rated higher than even the vaunted ACC and Big East, pundits waxed eloquent about how talented the coaches and teams were overall.

Yet just four days into the NCAA Basketball Tournament, only Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans were still alive. Worse, the Big Ten looked a step below ordinary. The teams ran into buzzsaws with match up issues in some cases, but in others the league appeared as unathletic as a flamingo playing hopscotch.

As for The Ohio State Buckeyes, Georgetown exposed them for a team that played hard and played well, but they played over their head and with a lack of overall depth and top shelf talent.

So what in the name of Fred Taylor is going on and why does the Big Ten need Thad Matta?

Jump in the way back machine to 1988. Ohio State had just hired one John Cooper. Although he offended millions with his reference to the Buckeyes being less than athletic, his point was accurate in one respect: the Big Ten had fallen behind on the field. Michigan and Ohio State, who were supposed to carry the pride of the Midwest, were overmatched in bowls and pre-conference tilts.

John Cooper, for all his faults, determined to recruit speed and athleticism. He decided to go after top end talent and use Ohio State to sell itself. He upgraded the Buckeyes on the field.

The net result?

The Buckeyes help put the Big Ten back on the map. Sure, Michigan has had more Rose Bowls in that span and yes, Ohio State struggled in bowls, but it was the reinvigoration of the Scarlet and Gray locomotive that forced everyone else to work harder, recruit better, and develop players more effectively.

Warp back to the present day.

Take a look around the Big Ten conference in men's basketball. Take a good look with a critical eye, and what you find may surprise you.

The Big Ten, for all of its great reputation, is sliding downward. Michigan, instead of taking advantage of the talent in their back yard, is languishing with pedestrian results. Illinois has experienced a recent resurgence, but with Chicago only a hop, skip, and a jump away, shouldn't this program be a legitimate national title contender every year? What about Indiana, a program with an almost mythical tradition? They have just two Final Four appearances and one national title in the last two decades and recently hired a coach under the cloud of NCAA sanctions. Wisconsin has done well recently, but they are not a historical power, and unless they somehow tap into the Milwaukee and Chicago talent, they will likely fade back into obscurity with time. Northwestern and Penn State aren't likely to frighten a mouse with their men's teams, and Purdue has dropped to the basement to join them after the departure of Gene Keady. Iowa is Iowa; they are a program who will probably managed 15-20 wins per year, but they will not be a national power any time soon. That leaves Michigan State, who has carried the banner for the conference over the past decade, and Ohio State, who has had more ups and downs in the last three decades than a manic depressive without their medication.

So back to our question again – why does the Big Ten need Matta?

The Big Ten needs Matta (and Izzo) because the conference is in a slump. The talent level is down and worse, while the Big Ten has been in a downswing, the landscape of the sport has changed. The ACC, tough as always, has continued to improve and the Big East has morphed from a powerhouse to a juggernaut.

The conference was once full of NBA lottery picks and future stars like Glenn Robinson, Jimmy Jackson, Lawrence Funderburke, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Glenn Rice, Michael Finley, Calbert Cheaney, etc. Yet where are those stars now? When is the last time the Big Ten had a player who was considered ‘the best' in the nation? Mateen Cleaves was good, but he isn't an NBA star. Aside from Michael Redd – no former Big Ten players are even making noise to join the NBA All Star Team.

What the Big Ten needs is someone to come in, shake up the conference, and force other teams and programs to play catch up. Look at the cornucopia of NBA stars this league turned out during the period of 1988-1995.

Enter Matta.

Since being hired following Jim O'Brien's dismissal, what Matta has done is at the very least remarkable and perhaps even almost unbelievable. Inheriting a program with the NCAA's Grim Reaper of sanctions leaning over it, all he did is win 20 games and upset the number one team in the nation (Illinois). He followed that trick by recruiting the best class of athletes for a Big Ten program in a generation and winning the Big Ten Championship with a collection of players that shouldn't have finished above third.

He has raised the bar and is forcing other coaches and programs to ask, ‘What are we going to have to do to compete?' If they wish to win championships, the rest of the Big Ten teams will be forced to play catch up because Matta isn't slowing down. He has the proverbial ball rolling down the hill and apparently intends to run over anyone or anything in his way.

First there is his incoming 2006 recruiting class. The headliner, Greg Oden, is widely considered one of the best big men (centers) coming out of high school in the last thirty years. The consensus top recruit in the country and without question the first pick in the NBA draft were he eligible (and had he chosen to enter it), Oden is everything a coach looks for in a player. Oden is followed in importance by Daequan Cook, a guard from Dayton, Ohio. Cook, like Oden, led his team to a state championship and possesses more than enough athleticism to take over any game when he puts his mind to the task. Then there is David Lighty, a forward with an explosive game; his rankings would likely have been higher but for a knee injury suffered in his junior season. Mike Conley (one of the more overlooked members of the class if that is possible), played with Oden at Lawrenceville North High School in Indiana. His unselfish ball distribution and playmaking ability helped make Oden a star and resulted in three straight state championships in the basketball mad region. Finally, Othello Hunter, a junior college forward will add size, depth, and contribute as he matures and his frame finishes filling out.

That would be quite the haul over a period of four seasons, but Matta did it in just one. He has followed the second best recruiting class in the nation in 2006 by putting himself in position for top three classes in 2007 and 2008. Jon Diebler, who has a shot at breaking the Ohio High School scoring records before he finishes, will join Ohio State in 2007. B.J. Mullens, a top five center, and Walter Offutt, a top five guard, will suit up in the fall of 2008. Then, in just the last several weeks, the Matta has reeled in two more potential stars for 2007 in Kosta Koufos (forward) and Dallas Lauderdale (center), both rated in the top ten nationally at their respective positions.

In short, in just three years at the helm, Matta has completely upset the college basketball world. Instead of the Buckeyes simply hoping to be mentioned by top recruits, they are competing with Duke, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, and UCLA. Instead of hoping for an NCAA tournament berth, fans and pundits are expecting deep runs. Instead of praying for a shot at the Big Ten title, Ohio State finds itself in the position of front runner along with Illinois and Michigan State.

According to Hoops Guru Vince Baldwin, quoted on Prep Spotlight following Lauderdale's commitment, "You add him into the mix with the other recruits Ohio State already has committed and they are starting to distance themselves from most of the Big Ten in terms of overall talent being brought in."

UCLA's Ben Howland took these comments a step beyond in a recent ESPN ‘Outside the Lines' broadcast. He maintains that the moment Oden steps foot on campus, Ohio State will have to be considered among the favorites to win the national championship.

Thus, those whom are stuck in the Big Ten with Matta and his Buckeyes have two choices. They can either surrender, yielding the field to the talent being assembled in Columbus, or they can redouble their efforts and work to chase down the horse who is leading the field. In chasing down this stallion (and Tom Izzo), even if they do not catch Matta and his bunch, they will find their team and program improved…and an improved collection of teams…means an improved conference. An improved conference will translate to better out of conference play and deeper NCAA tournament runs – along with national championships.

And that is why the Big Ten needs Matta.

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