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'06 recruiting class could be huge

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The students in the line wrapping around the Value City Arena were festive and anxious to get into the building Thursday evening.

They were here to see Green Day perform.

No one around campus, though, would have been too surprised if they camped out after the show to greet a pair of recruits – Lawrence North (Ind.) High teammates Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., who were on their way for an official campus visit to the Buckeyes' men's basketball program.

Ohio State fans are passionate about their Buckeyes.

Good thing they have probably the ideal coach to whet their insatiable appetite for success.

Thad Matta and his staff are in the midst of assembling one of the most recognizable recruiting classes the Buckeyes have had recently.

It's hard at this stage to label how good the class of 2006 could be for Ohio State. But if the charge for Matta is to make the school the first stop for the state's top players and a potential destination for some of the elite players nationally, he is more than fulfilling his duty in his first full year of recruiting.

The Buckeyes are in a unique situation, having six scholarships open for 2006 and a need at every position. Under NCAA rules, the coaching staff can't comment on prospective recruits, but we can. The Buckeyes have commitments from, arguably, two of the top players in the state – Dayton Dunbar shooting guard Daequan Cook (an AAU teammate of Oden and Conley Jr.) and Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph small forward David Lighty.

The 7-foot Oden is the consensus top player in the class of 2006 and could be the No. 1 overall pick in next year's NBA draft if he declares (if no age limit is implemented). Conley Jr. is his running mate – the point guard and playmaker for Oden on the court and in his college decision process.

The two have made overtures that they want to play together and have made five unofficial visits already (Ohio State, Wake Forest, Indiana, Michigan State and North Carolina). They officially visited Wake Forest two weeks ago and are making an official trip to Ohio State this weekend.

Scout.com gave Lighty and Cook its highest five-star rankings. Adding Oden and Conley could rank the class as one of the best, if not No. 1 in the country.

Regardless of whether they get Oden and Conley, the Buckeyes are on the right track – toward not only respectability and credibility within the state but also as a national player again within two years of a coaching change and revelations of potential NCAA violations.

Just a year ago, former coach Jim O'Brien admitted he made a "humanitarian" payment of $6,000 to former signee Aleksander Radojevic, who never made it to Columbus. O'Brien contends that he was helping Radojevic's family deal with the post-war problems in Serbia and that payment was made after it was determined Radojevic was heading to the NBA draft. The payment was made in 1998-99, the same year the Buckeyes reached the Final Four.

That admission was enough for former athletic director Andy Geiger to fire O'Brien in June 2004. The summer fallout continued with reports of special housing treatment for at least one former Buckeye, eventually leading the school to give itself a postseason ban in 2005.

O'Brien is suing for upwards of $3 million for wrongful termination since he was fired before an NCAA investigation was conducted, something his attorney contends is a requirement of his contract. Sources close to the situation say the NCAA is still at least six months away from finishing its investigation and determining if further sanctions are warranted.

Yet, through all of this, Matta has flourished.

He got the Ohio State job on the first day of the summer evaluation period in July 2004, three months after leading Xavier to the Elite Eight.

This season, he guided the Buckeyes to a 20-12 record (8-8 in the Big Ten) with the nation's only regular-season win over Illinois. Earlier, in December, the Buckeyes also beat eventual Sweet 16 team Texas Tech in Dallas.

Most recently, Matta has been a hit on the recruiting trail.

"We were trying to catch up, and with all of the negativity it was hard," said Matta, fresh off a few days in Florida for the first real break he's had since taking the job. "One thing we did last July is that we went about 60-40 looking toward 2006. We were nervous that we weren't going to get much for 2005."

But they did, landing Bowling Green stud Ron Lewis as a transfer. Lewis, who Matta calls the best redshirt he's ever had in his coaching career, could be the Buckeyes' leading scorer next season. He has improved his dribble-drive-and-shoot game, rebounded well in practice and apparently was as intense a competitor as the Buckeyes had in practice last season.

Ohio State also added two players who should have an impact in 2005-06: shooting guard Sylvester Mayes of Redlands CC (Calif.) and power forward Brayden Bell of Brighton High in Salt Lake City.

"We were scrambling when we got the job," Matta said. "We showed up at the ABCD camp [in New Jersey] with no gear on [i.e., logos on the golf shirts]. We didn't know our team. We had no idea what we needed.

"When we got the release on Ron [who is from the area] we were like, 'Who is Ron Lewis?' – because we had no idea," Matta said. "The next question was, 'Why didn't we recruit him to Xavier?' But he turned out to be a great player for us, the player who helped us get better in practice. Then we got Sylvester Mayes and Brayden Bell, a player we had targeted at Xavier."

The Buckeyes were satisfied in November with three newcomers set for 2005-06. But Ohio State still will have only 10 scholarship players for next season with the departure of seniors Tony Stockman and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham and the defections of Jermyl Jackson-Wilson and Ricardo Billings, who both wanted more playing time.

"We're not where we need to be yet," Matta said. "Never have we had six scholarships and needed every position."

Added assistant John Groce, "You can coach a long time and never have a situation that exists like that."

Matta said he was envious of teams like Illinois and North Carolina that were filled with rosters where everyone could play at a high level.

"I loved a guy like Jack Ingram on Illinois," Matta said of the backup center who made key shots for the Illini all season.

That's why the Buckeyes put so much into the class of 2006.

"We talked about getting the best class we could in 2006, and we were prepared to do that from the first day we got the job," Groce said. "That was risky since we still had some scholarships to fill for 2005."

Taking teammates, whether from the same high school or AAU team, can be risky. Schools usually don't have two, let alone three, legitimate spots for teammates to come in and contribute. Matta said he had been burned before by taking teammates and that it doesn't always work out, but the Buckeyes current roster situation could put them in a position to land the trio of Cook, Conley Jr. and the biggest fish of them all, Oden (if he sticks by his word and goes to school).

Still, Matta knew recruiting couldn't be all talk. The Buckeyes can't just sell the school and the fans. He knew he still had to do something on the court. The 65-64 victory over Illinois to snap the Illini's undefeated season might have been exactly what the Buckeyes needed most.

"I've never seen anything like that game," Matta said. "It was off the charts. Every time we needed a bucket the crowd was there for us. If we missed, there was a collective 'aaaww.' That game gave us momentum. It has helped our guys this spring going through workouts."

This program has had much historical success, with the last trip to the Final Four coming only six years ago. There's no reason why the Buckeyes can't again become one of the best teams in the Big Ten, along with Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin.

It would help if the NCAA doesn't add to the self-imposed penalty, since the infraction came in the late '90s and the coaching staff has changed since then. Matta said he hasn't thought once about the NCAA issues. He's been going "100 miles an hour" since he took the job.

"The Illinois win did solidify us that Ohio State can be for real," Matta said. "Yes, that game meant a lot. But the story here isn't finished yet."

Hardly. It seems like this is just the beginning.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.