THAD MATTA, the pride of Hoopeston, Ill., had a plan. In the fall of 1995, as a 28-year-old assistant coach at Western Carolina, Matta made a list of 100 goals, an idea he'd taken from the book Super Self. Matta's to-do list was ambitious, to say the least: become a head coach by age 33, reach the NCAA tournament by 37 and advance beyond the first round by 38. He also wanted to coach a college player of the year, get a job in the Big Ten and sign the nation's top high school player. ¬∂ He might as well have vowed to land on Mars. Yet 10 seasons later Matta, now the second-year coach at Ohio State, has already checked off each of those accomplishments. "There were some crazy things on that list," says Matta, a folksy mix of Norman Dale and Norman Vincent Peale who began his basketball odyssey in a Hoosiers-style farm town--hoops-mad Hoopeston, just eight miles from the Indiana border--and started his meteoric head-coaching career at 32 on a literal Hoosiers set (Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse, site of the film's final scene and the arena where Matta was a Bulldogs guard for three seasons). ¬∂ If anything, Matta has reached his goals ahead of schedule, a pattern that's continuing at Ohio State, which may be on its way to competing for a Final Four berth (one of Matta's few unmet objectives) a year earlier than expected. At midweek the No. 18 Buckeyes were a surprising 10-0, their best start since 1990-91 and evidence that Matta has turned Ohio State into the nation's fastest-rising program just 18 months after replacing Jim O'Brien (who was fired after admitting he'd given $6,700 to a recruit). "The coaches have changed my attitude toward basketball and life," says senior forward Matt Sylvester. "They have rejuvenated the program."
But wasn't this revival supposed to happen next season? Wasn't it supposed to coincide with the arrival of the so-called Thad Five--one of the highest-rated recruiting classes of the past 25 years--led by 7-foot center Greg Oden, the best high school player in the land? Somebody forgot to tell the incumbent Buckeyes. "Nobody talks about right now, and that bothers me," says Matta. "I had to tell these guys last season that we weren't going to the postseason [the result of self-imposed sanctions in the wake of O'Brien's departure], but I needed them to lay the foundation for the future."
Just as hard, Matta says, was delivering some disappointing news to his team before its 81-74 victory at Saint Joseph's last month. Matta had flown in from Indianapolis, where he'd hoped the NCAA infractions committee would clear Ohio State for the 2006 postseason. Instead, the hearing was postponed until Feb. 3, leaving the Buckeyes' future under a cloud. "I couldn't tell them anything except, 'By God, you'd better play hard tomorrow,'" says Matta. "And they did. I love that about them." The relentlessly positive Matta has never faced a stiffer test. "I would be shocked if the NCAA did anything to these kids," he says. "Everyone keeps telling me we're going to be all right, but I want to hear it from them."
In hindsight, perhaps more should have been expected from Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes have nearly all the main figures back from last year's outfit, which went 20-12 and handed then 29-0 Illinois its only regular-season loss. (Matta has become the Merchant of Death for undefeated teams, having the year before at Xavier ended Saint Joseph's 27-game unbeaten run.) Senior center Terence Dials has anchored a thin front line by averaging 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, but the key has been a steady backcourt that provides solid perimeter defense and an attacking spark.
No Big Ten player has been more efficient offensively than senior guard Je'Kel Foster, the Buckeyes' leading scorer (16.5 points a game through Wednesday), who was shooting 57% from three-point range. A transfer from Chipola J.C. in Marianna, Fla., Foster signed with the Buckeyes in April 2004 but nearly changed his mind after O'Brien was fired. "I was nervous until I talked to Coach Matta," Foster says. "But we hit it off, and I knew I still wanted to come here."
The Buckeyes aren't without flaws. "We're not good enough to have bad nights and still win," Matta says. His team's lack of size was exposed by LSU on Dec. 31, when the Buckeyes needed a late 12-0 run to survive, 78-76, at home. Indeed, now that the Big Ten season has begun and "real bullets are flying," as Foster puts it, Matta's players will find out just how good they are. Their first conference test comes on Saturday at No. 16 Indiana, where Hoosiers fans will no doubt want to stick it to the program that spirited away Oden and point guard Mike Conley Jr. from Indianapolis's Lawrence North High.
Ohio State coaches are still amazed at how their historic recruiting class came together. In August 2004 Matta laid out his targets in a closed-door staff meeting: Oden, Conley, shooting guard Daequan Cook of Dayton's Dunbar High and forward David Lighty of Cleveland's Villa Angela--St. Joseph High. "Get the hell outta here! Oden's going to the pros!" assistant coach Dan Peters told him. "But Thad dreams big," Peters says now.
It was the Matta 100 all over again. Yet the coach believed he could land all four. He still had strong ties in Indiana from his days at Butler, and his reputation had only grown during his three years at Xavier, where he coached 2003 national player of the year David West and took the Musketeers to within a whisker of the '04 Final Four. There were intangibles, too. "You can sense his passion for building Ohio State basketball," says Buckeyes assistant John Groce. "This is a terrific school in a great league with tremendous support, but the biggest reason those kids chose OSU was Thad."
Cook committed first, paving the way for his summer-league teammates Oden and Conley. (Lighty and forward Othello Hunter, a transfer from Florida's Hillsborough C.C., would fill out the Thad Five.) For the Indiana duo, Matta's energy and disarming youthfulness carried the day. Before last March's upset of Illinois, he made a big impression by flying to Lawrence North games. And during their on-campus visit Matta had Oden and Conley in stitches with a dead-on impression of their high school coach. Conley noted that Matta lifts weights with his players and regularly participates in drills. Says Sylvester, "If we're not practicing as hard as he wants and the ball's rolling toward the sideline, he'll dive on it just to get us going."
Perhaps Matta's most remarkable achievement was pulling off his recruiting haul without raising any suspicions. "Thad was just smarter than everyone else," says North Carolina's Roy Williams, who pursued Oden and Cook. "He did a better job reading the landscape."
Matta's rise is a testament to a work ethic that traces back to his hometown, where his father, Jim, was a coach and the athletic director at Hoopeston--East Lynn High. ("All I wanted to be was my dad," Thad says.) You can still detect an Illinois accent in the way Matta says "Hupston," and you can hear the respect in his voice for the town's farmers and for the workers he'd see on break from the American National Can plant.
Now he's bringing the same attitude to Ohio State. If the man from Hoopeston can turn Columbus into a hoops town, anything's possible.
Read Grant Wahl's College Basketball Mailbag every Wednesday at SI.com/collegebasketball.