Ohio State's run keyed by frosh faith

Associated Press
Ohio State coach Thad Matta has the Buckeyes in the Final Four after former coach Jim O'Brien violated NCAA rules three years earlier. Matta and his team avoided major sanctions when the NCAA handed down its penalties a year ago to the university.

COLUMBUS, Ohio - It's easy to see Greg Oden swatting shots or Mike Conley Jr. slicing through the lane to make a no-look pass and forget just how far Ohio State has come this season.


It started with a leap of faith for a group of stellar recruits who could have picked any school and chose a program staring at NCAA probation.

A year later, the Buckeyes have the Final Four and a matchup with Georgetown on Saturday in their sights.

"They took an incredible risk by coming to Ohio State," coach Thad Matta said of the first-year players who are the backbone to this year's 34-3 team. "They chose this program at a time when they didn't know our fate - if they could even go to postseason play."

It was a little more than a year ago, on March 10, 2006, when the NCAA hit Ohio State with three years of probation. An investigation had determined that former starting guard Boban Savovic received improper benefits.

All of the violations occurred under head coach Jim O'Brien, who was fired June 8, 2004, shortly after disclosing a $6,000 payment to another prospective recruit from Eastern Europe.

Athletic director Andy Geiger didn't have to look far to find a coach, hiring Matta away from Xavier, where he had won 78 games in three seasons.

With NCAA penalties looming, a dark cloud of uncertainty hung over the program from the minute Matta took over July 7, 2004. There was unrest among the players - should they risk sticking around or cut their losses and transfer?

In December of Matta's first year on campus, Geiger and university President Karen Holbrook announced that the men's team would be held out of postseason play as a way to mollify NCAA investigators and head off more severe penalties.

In the midst of all the speculation, Matta was recruiting one of the best five-man classes in college hoops history. Matta had to promise Oden and Conley that if the NCAA lowered the boom on Ohio State they would not be bound by the letter of intent they signed with the school. David Lighty, Daequan Cook and junior-college transfer Othello Hunter also came on board.

When the penalties came out, they were not crippling - probation, repayment of $800,000 in revenues earned during the O'Brien NCAA years and eradication of all mention of the accomplishments from that era.

The Final Four banner from 1999 was taken down; now, officially, the Buckeyes' last trip to the national semifinals came in 1968.

But there was no postseason ban. Finally, the players found out that they would be permitted to go to the NCAA Tournament. That overachieving team went 26-6, losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Georgetown.

The Buckeyes came into this season with just four players - and one starter - back from that team. Matta told the players that the Final Four was their destiny.