Ohio State missing 4 defectors to NBA

Published 5:35 am Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Feeling the frustration of a third consecutive loss on Sunday, Ohio State’s Jon Diebler said when the Buckeyes go over the video of the defeats they ask, ‘‘What if?’’

For an entirely different reason, that’s the question that nags coach Thad Matta.

No team in the nation over the last three years has been hurt more by one-then-done freshmen moving on to the NBA. Instead of jockeying a team that must win at least two or three more games to make it into the NCAA tournament, Matta knows that he could easily be in charge of the dominant program in the nation.

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‘‘(CBS basketball analyst) Bill Raftery and I were laughing about it the other day,’’ Matta said on Monday. ‘‘You could conceivably be starting Michael (Conley Jr.), Daequan Cook, Evan Turner, Kosta Koufos and Greg Oden — and still not be starting a senior.’’

Conley, Cook and Oden, of course, helped the Buckeyes go 35-4 two years ago, capped by a second-place finish in the NCAA tournament to defending champion Florida. All three freshmen were taken in the top 21 picks in the NBA draft the next spring.

A year ago, the Buckeyes went 24-13 and, spurned by the NCAA tournament, went on to capture the NIT title. Then Koufos, like Oden an athletic 7-footer, also skipped town to play in the big league.

Now the Buckeyes (17-8, 7-7) need some good news and fast when they host Penn State (19-8, 8-6) on Tuesday night.

Matta needs three more wins — the Buckeyes have four more regular-season games remaining, in addition to the Big Ten tournament — to go 9-for-9 in 20-win seasons as a head coach at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State. In his five seasons with the Buckeyes, his teams have gone 122-43 (a 74 percent success rate), won two regular-season and one Big Ten tournament title.

Yet, in an odd circumstance, some Ohio State fans grumble that Matta may be too good of a recruiter.

Matta is not about to dumb down his recruiting to get players who are not projects just so they’ll stick around for four years. But even he gets winsome about what might have been.

Asked if he thinks about the players who left early, he said, ‘‘Oh, maybe once or twice.’’

Then he laughed.

After years of plucking several top high school seniors in the opening round of the draft, the NBA instituted a new rule three years ago. It required that high schoolers spend a year in college (or in one rare case, playing professionally in Europe) before being eligible for the NBA draft.

Ironically, the new rule helped Matta land Oden, a tall, talented and agile 7-footer who was a lock to go No. 1 in the draft in the spring of 2006, right after he had graduated from Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. Instead, Oden joined his high school teammate and best friend, Conley, in enrolling at Ohio State.

It wasn’t until a year later that he went No. 1, although he has battled injuries that sidelined him all of last season and part of this. Koufos followed him to the pros a year later.

As a result of the defections by Conley, Oden, Cook and Koufos, the Buckeyes have no seniors on their roster. The starting lineup consists of a freshman, three sophomores and a junior-college transfer. When swingman David Lighty broke his foot in December, the Buckeyes lost their captain, their most experienced player and the only player who had seen much playing time in the run to the national championship game. And Lighty is just a junior.

The attrition to the NBA may not be over, either.

B.J. Mullens, a 7-foot freshman, has played well but not spectacularly for the Buckeyes this season. Turner, a sophomore who leads the Big Ten in scoring at just over 17 points a game, has had a breakthrough year.

Now both are on the radar of NBA teams.

Suddenly, Ohio State is seen in some quarters as a steppingstone to the pros.

‘‘I want kids to come here for the right reasons. Obviously, getting to the NBA is something that every kid aspires to do,’’ Matta said. ‘‘What I don’t want, though, is to be known as just an NBA factory. I want to make sure that kids have the right frame of mind when they get here and want to do the right things.’’

But he is helpless to stem the flow to the pros.

He doesn’t second-guess any of the four who have made the jump and wishes them nothing but the best.

But he also realizes that his own career could be on an entirely different track.

Asked if he liked the one-year rule, Matta hesitated and laughed again.

‘‘What do you think?’’ he said.