Faith in Buckeyes’ recruits was first step in Final Four run

COLUMBUS – 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 – or, more accurately, a big step into the void – for the Buckeyes, who a year ago were staring down NCAA probation and now find themselves staring down Georgetown in the Final Four on Saturday.

“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.

“Some coaches were telling them we weren’t going to have a basketball team anymore.”

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

All the violations occurred under head coach Jim O’Brien, fired on 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 from Xavier University, where he had won 78 games in three seasons.

A dark cloud hung over Matta and the program from the minute he took over on July 7, 2004. Rumors abounded that the Buckeyes might get severe penalties. Other schools fed the negativity. There was unrest among the players – should they risk sticking around or cut their losses and transfer?

“What a relief it is to be where we are today,” current AD Gene Smith said of those days of doubt and innuendo.

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.

No player on the team was around when any of the violations took place.

“One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was walk in and tell guys they couldn’t go to postseason play for a crime they didn’t commit,” Matta said yesterday. “And then motivate them on a daily basis knowing that it was going to end and there was no chance of a reward.”

That team went 20-12 and is best remembered for handing top-ranked Illinois its first loss of the season in the Big Ten finale.

Smith said there were several times when he met with Matta to reassure him.

“On a few occasions, I had to say, ‘Thad, we’ve got to be patient,'” Smith said. “I was 99 percent sure we were not going to get a postseason ban based on what I’d seen in cases.”

In the midst of 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. Savovic’s name does not even appear in the Ohio State media guide under past letterwinners.

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 and won the conference’s regular-season title before losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Georgetown.