Matta on the Mend

Even when he's standing in a gym with the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino, Thad Matta stands out these days – not just because the soon-to-be-40-year-old coach just took Ohio State all the way to a school-record 35 wins and the NCAA final, but also because he's, well, a bit gimpy.

Thad Matta has been making the recruiting rounds so far this month, but isn't playing at 100 percent after undergoing surgery in mid-June to correct a herniated disc. The surgery became imminent when he started to lose feeling in his right foot – feeling that has not yet come back.

But Matta was able to make the short trip north to Akron to take in the games played at the LeBron James U.S. Skills Academy, the new Nike showcase that was staged at the University of Akron over the weekend and wraps up today.

"I'm doing better," Matta said while courtside at the JAR (James A. Rhodes Arena). "The back feels great. I just have to get the feeling back in the right foot. Travel makes it a little bit difficult, but it's going to take time. They said the nerve was damaged, so we'll see."

Matta was on crutches the first day of OSU's team camp, June 15, and underwent the back procedure the following day, missing games that included commitments B.J. Mullens, Walter Offutt and DeShaun Thomas.

"For about a month and a half I knew that something was wrong and I think the dam broke," he said. "So I went in and had the surgery and they did a great job. I went back in and they got everything out, so now it's just the waiting game of getting it healed."

Now that he is watching as many prospects as possible during the crucial July evaluation period, he is enduring life on the road – walking, driving, standing, sitting on metal benches and sleeping on lumpy hotel beds.

"That's the hard part," Matta said. "You're going 16 hours a day and sitting in awkward places, but I'm just trying to be as comfortable as I can and move as fast as I can, which isn't real fast right now.

"I think it will be a gradual thing, and really I probably need rest to give the situation the time to heal. But right now is not a great time to get the rest."

Matta shrugged off the notion that he is concerned about his health going into the 2007-08 season but he did admit that it could affect his ability to make it all the way through the month, trudging to places such as Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. For now, though, the coaching staff – which also includes associate head coach John Groce, assistant Alan Major and new assistant Archie Miller – is proceeding as planned, fanning out all over the country to see all the best recruits.

"I'm still holding up my end," said Matta, who sported protective footwear and a cane at the camp. "I may need a little bit of a rest. We're trying to petition with the NCAA in case things break down a little bit where we can make some adjustments, but I'm hoping right now that I can continue to do what I need to do. I enjoy this part of it and I think it's important that I get out and see the kids play."

It was especially important Matta was in Akron as virtually every coach of a top-25-type program was on hand as were some of the very best prospects from the 2008 and '09 classes. Only 70 of the 100 players invited were able to make it after competing at various skills camps across the country and that made the event even more elite in nature.

But is it a better gauge for the coaches?

"I think it is," Matta said. "All of the camps have done a really nice job of getting guys in there and for us the games are high level, high evaluation."

This summer is especially important for the OSU staff. The coaches have to keep on top of the four committed players for '08 – the 7-1 Mullens of Canal Winchester (Ohio) HS, the 6-3 Offutt of Indianapolis Warren Central, 6-1 point guard Anthony "Noopy" Crater of Flint (Mich.) Southwestern Academy and 6-5 wing William Buford of Toledo Libbey. Also, a pair of 2010 standouts in 6-7 Jared Sullinger of Columbus Northland, and the 6-7 Thomas, and out-and-out star at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers, are more or less in the fold, although Thomas would have to be considered a soft verbal at this point as he has promised his parents he will take more visits.

Even with that kind of jump on the competition, Matta and his assistants are trying to add to the '08 class – a versatile forward is preferred – and could dole out scholarships for a couple of '09 players as well. Plus, there is always more observing and evaluating to do and there are a few more 2010 players in their sights.

It's a more broad-brush approach to recruiting than in the past couple years and Matta wants to take full advantage of the summer.

"Quite honestly it's a credit to all of the camps and events (that) you can see, really, all ages everywhere you go," he said. "I think that's a good thing for us and I think nowadays you have to look at everybody."

Matta stayed closest to Crater in Akron, watching his future point guard compete against some of the best backcourt players in the nation. After a few up-and-down performances both in other events and at Nike, Crater was brilliant in stretches of his final game Sunday night. A source told he overheard Matta tell a neighbor in the stands, "Noopy is back."

Crater actually missed 3 of 4 free throws down the stretch and his team, Maryland, lost in sudden-death overtime. But before that he was outstanding in setting up teammates as well as picking his moments to attack the basket. Crater, who was traded off the Arizona team to provide Maryland with another ball handler, was as efficient as any player in the camp at running pick-and-rolls and finding teammates in traffic.

While it didn't appear that Matta was tracking any other '08 players at the camp, he did seem to be interested in a bevy of '09 prospects, including 6-5 wing Xavier Henry of Warr Acres (Okla.) Putnam City, 6-11 center John Riek of Centereach (N.Y.) Our Savior New American, 6-9 center forward/center Daniel Orton of Oklahoma City Bishop McGuinness, 6-8 forward Royce White of Minneapolis Delasalle, 6-3 combo guard Dexter Strickland of Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick's and 6-5 wing Rodney Williams of Robbinsdale (Minn.) Cooper.

Henry is a sweet-shooting lefty with a short list of schools that includes Ohio State. Riek, who was not made available to the media because of his limited use of the English language (he is of African descent) is a shot-blocker deluxe who still needs to get his wind. Strickland needs to develop more strength but has excellent quickness and moves. tracked down White, Orton and Williams and found they had varying interest in Ohio State as well as different grasps on their schools of choice.

The highly athletic Williams said the schools recruiting him the hardest at the moment are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, Bradley, Purdue, Iowa and Iowa State.

As for Ohio State, "They send me some stuff but they are not recruiting me as hard as those other schools are," he said.

Williams wouldn't mind staying fairly near to his Minnesota home.

"I like the Big Ten a lot," he said. "They've got some teams that are close to home for me. That'll help make my decision, being close to home so my parents and relatives can come watch me."

Orton said he is taking a more wide-open approach.

"It's really a wide variety of schools right now," he said. "I really haven't cut it down to a certain number yet."

When asked if it would be hard for him to leave the state of Oklahoma, Orton didn't flinch.

"Not at all," he said. "My cousin coaches at Oklahoma, but it really doesn't affect my decision anyways. I can go out of state or stay in state."

Orton knows there will be plenty of high major interest in him if he continues to work on his game. At the Skills Academy, he stunned defenders with his ability to hit face-up jumpers and also was overpowering at times in the post with a lethal drop-step move.

If he can continue to develop it would become likely he'd receive a raft of offers, including one from Ohio State.

"I really like Coach Major and Coach Matta," he said. "They've shown a lot of interest in me lately and I just like how they treat their players. Othello Hunter, I've talked to him on some occasions and he seems like a pretty nice guy."

A versatile and cerebral forward, White said he is just getting into the recruiting evaluation game.

"I'm talking to coaches now, so by the school year I'll have a better understanding of it than I have now," he said. "But even then I still might not have a real good understanding of what I want to do. I've got no favorites right now."

White, however, did take notice of Matta and is enamored with Ohio State.

"That's a great program, I think," he said. "I think this last Final Four appearance was long-awaited because they couldn't be in it (two years before). They've been good for a long time but a lot of people didn't know that. I've been asking around and I've been trying to ask questions about the program and things like that. I was talking to Coach Groce when they first started calling, and I missed a call from Coach Matta. I was kind of disappointed about that because I was really looking forward to talking to him.

"I'm real impressed with Ohio State. I'm looking forward to being recruited by them. If they ever say that they want me to come out and visit, I'd be happy to do that. They're one of the most elite programs in the country. Any time you get a chance to visit an elite program like that, you've got to take it."

The camp featured just three Ohio players – besides James, of course. They were 6-7 forward Delvon Roe of Lakewood St. Edward, 6-11 Kenny Frease of Massillon Perry and 6-4 guard Robert Wilson of Garfield Heights, all seniors-to-be. Roe is committed to Michigan State and Frease is promised to Xavier. OSU recruited both players last summer.

The JAR also included a familiar face in the form of Hunter, OSU's 6-9 forward/center who served as one of the 19 college campers and got to play several games with and against the likes of Illinois' Shaun Pruitt, Hasheem Thabeet of UConn and twins Brooks and Robin Lopez of Stanford. Also on hand were guards Ty Lawson of North Carolina, Drew Lavender of Xavier and Drew Neitzel of Michigan State as well as swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts of Memphis.

Hunter, who will be a senior, said he jumped at the chance to participate.

"I feel like I've got to do whatever it takes for me to get my team better, so this offseason is just (about) working on my game, every part of it – getting in condition and getting in shape, all of that stuff. I just want to be ready for next year," he said.

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