It's been a trying two weeks for Thad Matta and the Ohio State men's basketball program.
The Buckeyes missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007-08; with two of their top three leading scorers injured, they lost in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament; and their highly-touted five-man freshmen recruiting class has been reduced to one player.
And yet, when speaking to Land-Grant Holy Land by phone on Thursday, Matta was confident about the future of his program. Presuming redshirt sophomore center Trevor Thompson elects to postpone his professional basketball aspirations, Ohio State will bring back its top six scorers in 2016-17.
"I think all of these guys have a newfound hunger in terms of our program and what they need to do," Matta said.
Matta, who has been promoting his collaboration with Dove Men+Care, struck a resolute tone despite a trying 2015-16 campaign that culminated with a 74-66 setback to Florida on March 20. The Buckeyes finished 21-14 (11-7 Big Ten) this year -- Matta has now reached 20 wins in each of his 16 seasons as a head coach -- but they were also fraught with inconsistency, a predictable byproduct of doling out playing time to nine underclassmen.
However, there are some troubling trends. The Buckeyes' win total declined for the third straight year, and they placed outside of Big Ten title contention for a third consecutive season, finishing seventh in the conference after placing sixth in 2014-15 and fifth in 2013-14.
Though Ohio State's core remains intact, the program's depth was dealt at least a temporary blow earlier this week when freshmen Daniel Giddens, A.J. Harris, and Mickey Mitchell announced their intentions to transfer. In December, Austin Grandstaff became the first member of the Buckeyes' No. 5-ranked 2015 recruiting class to leave the program.
"We pretty much knew those guys were going to go before it happened," Matta said of Giddens, Harris, and Mitchell's determinations to split from the program.
Matta does not foresee any further player defections or changes to his coaching staff.
"I think everything else is in check," he said.
When queried on what excites him about Ohio State moving forward, Matta again referenced the likely return of team's top six scorers (Marc Loving, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate, JaQuan Lyle, Kam Williams, Thompson) while also citing his incoming recruiting class that consists of a pair of Ohio natives in forward Derek Funderburk and forward/center Micah Potter.
"I love the guys we're adding. They're coming to Ohio State for all the right reasons," Matta said. "We're going to put a group of guys on the floor that are Buckeyes. That, to me, is the most important thing."
Matta also addressed a few other subjects:
On the recoveries of Tate (left shoulder surgery) and Bates-Diop (mononucleosis): "Jae'Sean's rehab is going great. He's right on schedule."
"Keita is putting weight back on. He looks a heck of a lot better than he did when [he contracted mono]. That's kind of an ongoing deal. If you saw him late in the season, you knew he wasn't himself. The recovery takes time in terms of the spleen and not getting hit and all that stuff. He's in great spirits."
On Lyle's potential: "I don't think he's scratching the ceiling yet of what he's capable of becoming. His mind is in a great place right now. With that said, he's going to have a heck of a sophomore year."
On what keeps him coming back after 26 seasons as a college coach: "I enjoy taking a group of guys and bringing them together as one. It excites me when Evan Turner calls me and is very, very upset with guys that have chose to do something else, because [the players] are the guys that built the program. This thing is about a family. It's about becoming one. That's what keeps me going at it."