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Lifelong Big Ten fan heads Buckeyes

Thad Matta, simply put, is a Big Ten guy.

Growing up in the tiny east-central Illinois town of Hoopeston, Matta knew nothing but the Big Ten. A 40-minute drive east and Matta was at Purdue. Head 45 minutes southwest and he was at the University of Illinois. Matta was a high school kid in the mid-80s, back when Big Ten basketball meant Bob Knight, Jud Heathcote, Gene Keady and Lou Henson.

That upbringing is much of the reason why Matta is where he is, coaching the Ohio State Buckeyes. Why he agreed to take over a program that appears to be well on its way to receiving NCAA sanctions. Why he signed on for a job that will become harder before it becomes easier.

"I was a guy who lived for coming home from school and watching Big Ten basketball," Matta said. "It's a dream job for me to coach in the Big Ten. It was a tremendous situation at Xavier. It was not an easy decision. But it was something I felt was good for me.

"[Coaches] are normal people. We all have dreams and aspirations."

And sometimes a person has to sacrifice in the short term to fulfill those dreams and aspirations.

When Ohio State fired Jim O'Brien in early June for paying a recruit $6,000, Matta certainly wasn't in desperate need of a new job. He had just finished his third season at Xavier and was little more than two months removed from leading the Musketeers to within a game of the Final Four.

Throw in one season at Butler, and Matta had led teams to four straight NCAA tournament appearances. He was 102-31 as a head coach and was in position to make another trip to the Dance, as the Musketeers had established themselves as a top-tier Atlantic 10 program. Xavier has a stunning on-campus arena, and Matta was reeling in recruit after recruit to the school's Cincinnati campus.

Is Xavier a destination job? Probably not, but it is a place where a coach doesn't have to jump at the first opportunity to move to a bigger conference. Pete Gillen spent nine seasons there before leaving for Providence. Skip Prosser was there seven years before Wake Forest lured him away. Neither left for a major rebuilding job.

Matta, however, felt Ohio State was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Even if that meant enduring some difficult times.

"I had a great job," Matta said. "I thought there were maybe two or three jobs that I would leave Xavier for. Ohio State was one of those."

Ohio State, after all, doesn't have to worry about money, not with crowds of more than 100,000 showing up for every football game. The Buckeyes have the nearly new Schottenstein Center, an NBA-quality building that has all the amenities that star high school players covet.

The other thing Matta will tell you is that the Buckeyes have history -- much more than a lot of people think. Ohio State has played in nine Final Fours, more than any other Big Ten team. Yes, eight of those appearances were made before 1970, but O'Brien proved it still can be done when he took the Buckeyes there in 1999.

Now, however, the Final Four is a mile away for the Buckeyes. This season's team is projected to finish among the bottom three or four in the Big Ten. From there, things might get worse.

When the NCAA completes its work in Columbus, there will almost certainly be sanctions. O'Brien, after all, committed the biggest sin in college athletics -- giving money to a recruit.

If recent cases are any indication, Matta is going to face recruiting restrictions. His staff likely will have its number of recruiting observation days cut. Scholarship losses also are a possibility. That's what happened at Missouri, for violations that were much smaller in scale, if not in scope.

"This is a great challenge," Matta said. "I'm relatively young at 37. This program is not where we want it to be. But it's not where it was yesterday either."

So far, things have gone as well on the court as possible. Ohio State rolled past Towson and Robert Morris in the first two rounds of the Guardians Classic to advance to next week's tournament semifinals in Kansas City. There, the Buckeyes should get a bit more of an idea where they stand. Ohio State plays Houston on Tuesday before facing either Creighton or Missouri. The Buckeyes host Delaware this Friday.

Regardless of the outcomes, if the early weeks of Matta's tenure are any indication, the Buckeyes will play hard, play together and play defense. Three things that didn't always happen last season under O'Brien.

In the two victories this week, the Buckeyes allowed only 53 and 50 points. To put that in context, only twice last season did Ohio State allow fewer points in a victory.

Defense certainly isn't exciting, but Matta wants it to be the cornerstone of the Ohio State rebuilding process. He wants a Buckeyes team that was ninth in the Big Ten in scoring defense to lock teams down for the entire shot clock. He wants Ohio State to play hard for an entire game. If that happens, the Buckeyes have a chance to be competitive.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.