Matta, back for his third year as the OSU coach, had his team in brand new home uniforms to signify, perhaps, a new era. The four freshmen – led by much ballyhooed 7-1 center Greg Oden – posed for scads of photos. But, in keeping with Matta's policy, they did not do interviews with the media. That right is preserved strictly for the returning players, whom Matta hopes are up to guiding such a young team.
"The exciting thing is you have a tremendous challenge because you are so young with only four returning players," said Matta, whose veteran laden team went 26-6 and won the Big Ten championship last year. "It's going to be a unique situation. We have a real short time before we play. Therefore, I think we have to evaluate things quickly. The big thing we don't want to do is sacrifice the fundamentals and some of the teaching that goes along with that. You don't want to put the cart before the horse."
Matta was asked if it will be hard to keep the freshmen focused as they enter the season.
"That's part of the reason our young guys don't talk until after the first game," Matta said. "You want them to get the feel for college basketball. We've got four guys on this team who have never played with a shot clock before. I think one of the challenges we have is molding them and getting them to think along the lines we want them to think. That is learning the system and trusting the system. I think that's where the crash course comes with our practices.
"We are very competitive in practice and try to force the guys' hands to learn as we compete. That's going to be even a heightened level this year with the short time we have before we play.
"There is no question guys are going to get thrown into the fire early and they will have to develop quickly. Every second of every practice will be vitally important to this club."
Of course, one of the major topics on photo day was Oden's health. He underwent wrist surgery over the summer and is still in the rehab process. He could one-third of the season, Matta said.
"He's doing well," Matta said. "From the standpoint of the wrist, he is right on where they want him to be right now. His conditioning is in great shape. We don't want to rush anything and bring him back before he is 100 percent.
"The target date is Jan. 1. Obviously, we would take him if it was earlier. By the same token, I don't want to ever put a player in a position that might jeopardize his future. I think Greg gets frustrated at times being injured, as we all would. But he is doing everything he is supposed to do and (trainer) Vince (O'Brien) is doing a great job, as are the hand people here. They have embraced him and he is such a great kid, too."
With Oden on the shelf, Matta will turn to 6-8 junior Matt Terwilliger to help hold down the middle until the big man returns.
"I think Matt has had a great summer, from what I have seen," Matta said. "He is a guy who has stepped up and played some big minutes for us. In hindsight, you wish he had a chance to play more the last couple years. I think he's proven he can step up and shoot. His post game has gotten better. Hopefully, his all-around game will continue to improve."
"Ron and Ivan have had great summers," Matta said. "They are prepared. They know this is their last go around. For Ron, a double figure scorer coming back, the big thing is his defense. He has shown he has made vast improvement defensively. With Ivan, we know he can shoot. We need him to do a couple of other things.
"With Matt Terwilliger, hopefully this will be a great year for Matt. He has taken his workouts seriously. I think he is saying, ‘Hey, I have a great opportunity here.'
"With Jamar, I've said this, I thought he was the most improved player in the country last year. I hope he can continue to make that progression. I think all four guys, coming off a Big Ten championship, they need to remember what it took and pass that on to the younger guys."
The 2006-07 roster includes just 10 players. Besides Oden and the four returnees, Matta also has junior college transfer Othello Hunter, a 6-9 junior, to add to the mix inside. Walk-on Sam Payne, a 6-2 sophomore, saw only a handful of minutes last year.
The three remaining freshmen are 6-1 guard Mike Conley, 6-5 guard Daequan Cook and 6-5 guard/forward David Lighty. Kyle Madsen, a 6-10 transfer from Vanderbilt, will practice with the team this year. But Madsen will not be eligible until next year, when he will retain sophomore eligibility.
The roster is small, Matta notes, but he also likes his players' versatility.
"We have guys who can play different positions on this team," he said. "We have guys who have a good feel for how to play the game of basketball. We have tried not only to try and teach that but also to recruit that. With the low numbers, it's one of those situations where it is where it is. Our guys know we will need everybody to understand their role and do what they need to do for us to get better."
Matta credited his upperclassmen for welcoming the newcomers with open arms.
"It is a unique situation, but our upperclassmen did a great job this summer working with young guys and getting them to understand that this is how we do things," he said. "The big thing we have always tried to preach is we don't care who gets credit. We want wins and we want to play team basketball. That's the big challenge I have – that we take care of the ball, we share the ball and we defend all five guys."
A month ago, OSU released its schedule for the upcoming season. The Buckeyes will host exhibitions with Findlay (Nov. 1) and Walsh (Nov. 5) before opening play with the Black Coaches Association Classic Nov. 10-12. The Buckeyes open that three-game event by playing VMI.
Pivotal nonconference match-ups also include games at North Carolina (Nov. 29), against Cincinnati (Dec. 16 in Indianapolis), at home with Iowa State (Dec. 19), at defending national champion Florida (Dec. 23) and at home with Tennessee (Jan. 13).
"I think it's going to be a great learning experience for us," Matta said of the slate. "You look at some of the teams we are playing, even in the BCA Classic. VMI has all five starters returning. Loyola, in the second round, has all five starters from a team that won 19 games. Then you look at Carolina, Florida, Cincinnati and Tennessee. Those are going to be great challenges for us. With this team, we wanted to have as many challenges as we could.
"When we begin Big Ten play, we will be able to say we played in two of the toughest environments in college basketball with Carolina and Florida. We're not going to see anything different when we go on the road in the Big Ten."
Various preseason publications pick Ohio State to win the Big Ten and to also contend for an NCAA Final Four berth. All of those projections are based on the potential the young players bring to the table. But Matta admitted he is unsure what the next 5-1/2 months may bring.
"I don't think people can comprehend how much pressure you put on yourself as a coach," he said. "Quite honestly, I don't know how this team is going to be. It would be quite foolish to speculate on what they're going to be able to do. There are so many unknowns and college basketball has changed drastically.
"The opening thing is Greg Oden is not healthy. Is that Greg's fault? Is that my fault? That's nobody's fault. That's life. I think a coach once told me, ‘We're all a sprained ankle away from mediocrity.'
"But we're going to work as hard as we can and we're going to try and mold this thing into the right direction. We've got guys who love the game of basketball. We know we're going to go through some ups and downs, but I think that will help you in the end."
Matta is mostly concerned with where this team ends up and the daily lessons it will take them to get to that spot.
"As I've told the guys, the only microscope we're going to be under is our own," he said. "That's how we have to operate. There are so many unknowns. It is a youthful team and, quite honestly, this is a day-by-day process with these guys. We want to play our best basketball in March, knowing we have a ways to go and a feeling out period. We have some tremendous challenges ahead of us early on. Those things should only strengthen us for February and March."
Photo Day Quotebook
* Matta on whether Lighty, involved in a BB gun incident at his high school, faces any disciplinary action at OSU -- "No, at that point, he wasn't with us. I think that was an incident … that was blown out of proportion. Dave was regretful for being in the situation he was in."
* Lewis on getting the freshmen acclimated -- "They know what's expected. They don't come in here with a big head. That was a big thing. They came in here ready to learn. There was nothing we had to say or do to get them ready to go."
* Lewis on the addition of Hunter -- "It's good to have another big man with Othello. He is big and strong like Greg is. He's going to show a lot of people he can be a top player in this league."
* Butler on what the newcomers have to look forward to -- "They'll learn what it's like to play on the road in the Big Ten with people screaming at you and just not being on your home floor. That will open their eyes a little bit."
* Butler on the high expectations put upon this team -- "There is some pressure to live up to that, especially when you come back from a team and you lose all of those players. We have a group of new guys and we're ranked higher. But we just have to look past that and play."
* Butler on what he has done to help the freshmen get situated -- "Ever since they got here, I have tried to get to know each one of these guys personally. I have spent a lot of time with them. I think that's a big part of being a leader because if you don't have a close team, you're not going to have a good team."
* Terwilliger on his role and setting an example for the younger guys -- "It puts me in a leadership role with Ron and Ivan and Jamar. We have to make sure when we start tomorrow with practice that it will be us showing them exactly the level we have to work at every day and the speed that everything goes. You have to set the precedent and show them how we do things around here."