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Matta enjoys busy schedule

COLUMBUS — It’s 10 o’clock on a Monday night in mid-March, the early NIT games are over and even avid basketball fans across the country are about to call it a day. That’s when Ohio State coach Thad Matta gets around to answering his stack of phone messages.

“I’m just sitting down to dinner with my family,” he says.

Some 14 hours into what is a day off for his players, Matta is bone tired yet exhilarated. He thinks of the more than 300 Division I coaches out there who aren’t busy right now, who don’t have a game for which to prepare.

Fans look at Ohio State and its coach and think their success — a 29-7 record, a date with Tennessee in the round of 16 on Friday night in St. Louis — is a product of recruiting, plain and simple. After all, don’t the Buckeyes have perhaps the very best player in the nation in Evan Turner?

And wasn’t it Matta who cajoled one of the great recruiting classes ever, dubbed The Thad Five, to come to Ohio State three years ago? That group included 7-foot center Greg Oden, coach-on-the-floor Mike Conley Jr. and superlative shooter Daequan Cook coming off the bench. They all left for the NBA after one season, taken in the first round of the draft.

Asked if it grates him that people consider him a recruiter first and a coach second, Matta laughed.

“No, it doesn’t bother me,” he said Tuesday. “I’m one of those guys, I just wake up every day, go to work and do the best that I can.”

In his 10 years as a head coach — one at his alma mater, Butler, three at Xavier and the last six at Ohio State — each of Matta’s teams has won at least 20 games. All three schools are still alive in the round of 16.

Remember, as a freshman Turner struggled and didn’t look anything like the player he is now. Unlike some who are marked for the pros before they learn to shave, Turner had to grow into his talent.

“Once you get here, it’s so tough,” he said of his maturation under Matta. “My first two months here, I didn’t pass the 3-point line. I definitely wasn’t ready for college. I had the roughest time ever here. I wasn’t sure if I could play at this level.”

Yet Matta has brought out the best in him and his team. Even when Turner sat out more than a month with broken bones in his back earlier this season, the coach helped the Buckeyes hang on.

“When we started off 1-3 in the Big Ten, he really stayed positive with us,” Turner said of Matta. “He was telling us that we need to take it one game at a time and come back and do what we need to do to try to finish off strong. And that’s what happened.”