Ohio State men's basketball: Thad Matta stays true with recruiting

He looks far, wide, but some Ohio talent has gotten away

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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With each Ohio-bred basketball player lately who has come back to bite Ohio State coach Thad Matta where it hurts most — in the loss column — comes carping over Matta’s decisions to leave the state’s borders to recruit.

Two years ago, it was Trey Burke at Michigan; last season, Caris LeVert at Michigan and Nigel Hayes at Wisconsin. All quickly became more productive than the out-of-state players Matta chose instead, and they helped their teams reach the Final Four, where the Buckeyes had gone the previous year on the back of native son Jared Sullinger.

Matta has another top-10 recruiting class on board for next season, and he is working on yet another for 2015 as he and his assistants embark this week on the annual July tour of skills camps and AAU tournaments.

But he said he hasn’t narrowed his recruiting focus, or tried to identify or project Ohio’s talent earlier, despite the inroads the Buckeyes’ biggest Big Ten rivals have made into the state.

Michigan State and Wisconsin will have as many scholarship players from Ohio on their roster (three) as Ohio State will next season, and Michigan will have two.

And only one of the four players who has committed to the Buckeyes for 2015 is from Ohio: point guard A.J. Harris of Dayton. Shooting guard Austin Grandstaff and forward Mickey Mitchell are from Texas, the first recruits from the Lone Star State that Matta has attracted to Ohio State. Center Daniel Giddens, who committed on Friday, is from Georgia.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve made adjustments,” Matta said in a recent interview. “Obviously, we’re trying to do the best we can. But we know we’ve got needs, and we’re attempting to project what we’re going to need in the future.”

How Burke ended up at Michigan has been well-documented. He rushed into a commitment to Penn State before raising his profile after his junior year of high school. By then, Ohio State had point guards Aaron Craft on campus and Shannon Scott committed. Burke rescinded his commitment to Penn State and, after a strong summer, chose Michigan over Cincinnati and Iowa.

LeVert, from Pickerington Central, was an even more obscure talent when he took back his commitment to Ohio University in 2012 after coach John Groce left for Illinois. Not even Groce recruited him to his new school. Michigan coach John Beilein checked him out only at the suggestion of Burke, who was in the same All-Ohio Red AAU program as LeVert. Two years later, LeVert has grown three inches and developed into a potential first-round pick in the 2015 NBA draft.

Matta said he never saw LeVert play in high school because he and his staff were recruiting a shooter, guard Amedeo Della Valle, who committed to Ohio State a few weeks before LeVert pledged to Michigan. Della Valle made little impact in two seasons and left in March to play professionally in his native Italy.

“Obviously, there’s no exact science” to recruiting, Matta said.

Hayes, from Toledo Whitmer, was not offered a scholarship by Matta until just before his senior year of high school in 2012. He did not fit the prototype of the “stretch” power forward Matta uses in his system, and Ohio State already had one of those committed: Marc Loving of Toledo St. John.

Hayes made a visit to Ohio State but committed to Wisconsin a month later, and last season, with a Big Ten-ready body, was the second-best freshman in the conference behind Noah Vonleh of Indiana. Loving averaged 11 minutes per game off the bench.

The argument that Matta should spend more time cultivating talent closer to home is bolstered by the number of elite recruits Ohio State has swung for and missed in recent years. Rather than waste time trying to pry a kid from St. Louis away from Kansas, or one from anywhere away from Duke, why not appeal more to in-state kids who in many cases grew up rooting for the Buckeyes?

But after having traveled every step of the road to an NCAA championship — except the last one — in 10 seasons at Ohio State, and having had at least one player taken in the NBA draft seven years in a row before this year, Matta thinks his program’s brand is good enough to compete with any school for the best recruits.

So does Grandstaff, a 6-foot-5 shooter who committed to Ohio State in May without taking another official visit. He had planned trips to Florida, Michigan and Texas.

“I definitely think they’re on the same level with Duke and all of them,” he said, “because the top-rated kids in the country come and ask me about Ohio State.”

With four already in the fold for 2015, Ohio State coaches will use the rest of the summer and fall trying to finish off the class with a forward, either Carlton Bragg or Esa Ahmad of Cleveland. Then it’s on to 2016 and a talent pool that includes three Ohioans to whom Matta already has offered scholarships.

More than where players are from, Matta said recruiting for him is “trying to find the right fit. Who likes us, and (whether) we like him,” he said.

“You start with guys who value the education, guys who have an appreciation for this university, guys who have strong character traits who are going to be hard-working and are going to care, to whom winning and losing is important.

“And you’re in a society today where there are a lot of choices to be made every day,” he added. “You’re trying to find guys who, for the most part, are going to make the right choices. Because the myth that we’re with these guys for 24 hours a day is not true.”

bbaptist@dispatch.com

@BBaptistHoops

WATCH LIST

Recruits whom Ohio State coaches will be scouting during the summer evaluation periods on July 9-13, 16-20 and 23-27:

Class of 2015: OFFERED

PLAYER POS HT HOMETOWN (SCHOOL)
Esa Ahmad F 6-7 Shaker Heights, Ohio (Shaker Heights)
Carlton Bragg F 6-9 Cleveland (Villa Angela-St. Joseph)
Jaylen Brown F 6-7 Alpharetta, Ga.
Elijah Thomas F 6-9 Rockwall, Texas

Class of 2016: OFFERED

PLAYER POS HT HOMETOWN (SCHOOL)
Tyus Battle G 6-5 Edison, N.J.
Derek Funderburk C 6-9 Lakewood, Ohio (St. Edward)
Harry Giles F 6-9 Winston-Salem, N.C.
V.J. King F 6-7 Akron (St. Vincent-St. Mary)
Jamal Murray G 6-4 Kitchener, Ontario
Jayson Tatum F 6-7 St. Louis
Jon Teske C 6-11 Medina, Ohio (Medina)

OTHERS

PLAYER POS HT HOMETOWN (SCHOOL)
Tervell Beck F 6-6 Cleveland (Central Catholic)
Braxton Blackwell F 6-8 Nashville, Tenn.
Derrick Daniels F 6-7 Dayton (Marshall)
Juwan Durham F 6-9 Tampa, Fla.
Terrance Ferguson G 6-6 Dallas
Quentin Gooden G 6-2 Campbellsville, Ky.
Kyle Guy PG 6-2 Indianapolis
Josh Jackson F 6-6 Southfield, Mich.
Willie Jackson F 6-4 Garfield Heights, Ohio (Garfield Heights)
Kobi-Jordan Simmons G 6-5 Alpharetta, Ga.
Omari Spellman F 6-9 New York
Derryck Thornton G 6-0 Chatsworth, Calif.
Seth Towns F 6-7 Columbus (Northland)
Nick Ward F 6-8 Gahanna
Cassius Winston G 6-1 Detroit
Seventh Woods G 6-0 Columbia, S.C.

Class of 2017

PLAYER POS HT HOMETOWN (SCHOOL)
Jayvon Graves G 6-1 Akron (St. Vincent-St. Mary)
Jaylen Harris F 6-5 Cleveland (Cleveland Heights)
Markell Johnson G 5-11 Cleveland (East Tech)
M.J. Walker F 6-5 Jonesboro, Ga.
Kaleb Wesson F 6-9 Westerville (South)

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