- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Thad Matta got back into his office Wednesday -- fresh off of being away for 17 days -- and arrived to see a stack of messages some 19-deep.
The Ohio State coach is in high demand these days. No, he has nothing to do with Wednesday's ruling that the school owes $2.2 million after the way in which it fired Matta's predecessor, Jim O'Brien. Instead, the Buckeyes coach is managing a team -- correct that, a program -- that is in this unique situation: Despite losing three starters from a Big Ten title squad, it is projected to be even better this coming year with four freshmen and a junior college transfer coming on board.
In case you've been under a rock for the past year, Ohio State has a few pretty good pieces coming into Columbus this season, led by the best prep center in the country, and maybe in years, in Greg Oden.
The Buckeyes are being bandied about as a possible national title contender, even though they return only two starters.
"I don't think I've ever heard in sports of a team that loses  percent of its starters, is ranked sixth to end the year and is ranked higher the next year," said Matta. "We've got a long, long, long way to go. It's going to be a fun, interesting journey, but I don't even want to think about [what this team will become] until late February."
Projecting the Buckeyes is harder to do with the uncertainty of when Oden will return from June surgery on his right wrist -- an injury that kept him from participating with the U.S. Men's National Team last month in Las Vegas.
Oden was at the training camp for two days, soaked in the experience, and then went back to summer school. Matta said he's supposed to get the wrist X-rayed within the next two weeks to check on the progress.
"But there is no timetable [for a return]," Matta said.
Oden didn't get a chance to play ball with his fellow Buckeyes during summer school, but his presence was still felt.
"He's humble, quiet and down to earth, but he loves the game of basketball," observed senior guard Jamar Butler.
Oden watched the pickup games, according to Butler, but he's not one to bark out commands. Instead, he sat idle, with the team knowing the 7-foot center will be a dominant player not quite sure how it will all develop..
"He'll fit right in, but it's hard to say how since we haven't played with him yet," Butler said.
Matta is hoping he won't have to wait until 2007 for Oden to be a factor, but Matta is not going to push him. If "the franchise" isn't ready to practice, he won't. He certainly won't play until he's 100 percent ready. Meanwhile, Matta won't let him talk to the media (while he's on the OSU campus) until he plays in a game.
Until then, the Buckeyes will lean on seldom-used backup Matt Terwilliger inside. Still, the expectations for the Buckeyes, who lost their top two scorers, is for a Big Ten title and a top-five national finish, even as Oden watches his heralded freshmen classmates -- Mike Conley, David Lighty and Daequan Cook -- run pickup games without him.
"The only time I've seen him play is on ESPN," Butler said. "He's a big man that can run the floor, use the pick-and-roll, block shots, and you won't find too many athletic seven-footers like that."
All the talk about Oden overshadows the importance of Butler. In an informal poll of some Big Ten coaches, Butler's name continued to come up as the one Ohio State player who stood out on tape for doing the little things.
"We're looking to him for leadership," Matta said. "We've asked him to do that we've got guys who have never even played with a shot clock. They'll pick it up, but what I like about our high school guys is that they all won, understand how to win. We just need to make the physical and mental adjustment."
Equally impressive this spring and summer is Ohio State's continued haul in recruiting. Usually, a school that is loaded with incoming talent can struggle to stockpile since there is no guarantee on playing time. That's not the case with the Buckeyes. Ohio State's 2007 recruiting class already is ranked in the top 10 by scout.com. Nabbing power forward Kosta Koufos, center Dallas Lauderdale and wings Evan Turner and Jon Diebler (all but Turner are from Ohio) shows the Buckeyes aren't being complacent. They're recruiting to continue building a national contender, with the thought that a player like Oden likely won't be around too long.
"Honestly, it's not much of an issue for us because Ohio State and Columbus are great places," Matta said. "We're trying to build something here and we're not even remotely close to arriving."
For the record, when ESPN.com's Summer Sizzling Top 50 comes out later this month, Ohio State won't be ranked No. 6. The Buckeyes won't be too far below that, though, and a lot of that has to do with its talent, its coaching and the overall atmosphere around this program. The culture in Columbus is ripe for winning.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.