On the day he signed the nation’s fifth-rated recruiting class two years ago, Ohio State coach Thad Matta could not stop beaming.
Matta clearly believed the five prized incoming freshmen he landed would keep the Buckeyes nationally relevant for years to come.
He proclaimed wing Austin Grandstaff a better shooter than Ohio State career 3-point record holder Jon Diebler. He described forward Mickey Mitchell as “the best passer I’ve seen a in a long time.” He praised point guard A.J. Harris for his toughness and quickness and he touted center Daniel Giddens as a defensive dynamo with a rapidly blossoming offensive skill set.
“I love who we got,” Matta said. “These were the guys we targeted and we said if we get them we’re going to be happy. So, as I said, I’m elated today.”
To say that Ohio State’s celebrated 2015 recruiting class did not live up to Matta’s glowing remarks would be an understatement of massive proportions. Four members transferred by the end of their freshman season without making any meaningful contributions and the lone remaining player was dismissed earlier this spring after two erratic seasons with the Buckeyes.
Not being able to coax more out of that cornerstone class is a big reason Matta is now out of a job. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith announced Monday afternoon that Matta will not be back next season after the Buckeyes failed to make the NCAA tournament the past two seasons and endured a string of recruiting misses this spring that diminished hope of a rapid turnaround.
It’s fair to argue that Matta would still be Ohio State’s coach had his declining health not impacted his job performance. Matta might also have bought himself a stay of execution had he managed to land one of the prized transfers or blue-chip freshmen he pursued this spring. But it’s undeniable that the beginning of the end for Matta was the most underachieving class of his tenure, one that arrived with tremendous promise and left without fulfilling any of it.
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The biggest mistake Matta made when assembling his 2015 recruiting class was not identifying some potential red flags quickly enough.
Ohio State’s 2015-16 roster was laden with sophomores and juniors who were established Big Ten-level players yet didn’t project as NBA prospects. As a result, any freshmen who came aboard that season either had to be talented enough to nudge an older player out of the starting five or patient enough to bide his time in a supporting role for a couple years.
Four of the players Ohio State signed in the 2015 class hadn’t previously exhibited that level of loyalty. Eager to find a program where they would be showcased, they had played for multiple high school or AAU teams or backed out of commitments to other colleges in favor of Ohio State.
The first to balk at playing sporadic minutes as a freshman was Grandstaff, the sharpshooter from Texas who also held offers from the likes of Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Unable to defend well enough to carve out a bigger role right away, Grandstaff logged 11.5 minutes per game the opening month of the season as a reserve wing behind veterans Marc Loving and Keita Bates-Diop.
“I could never get consistent minutes,” Grandstaff said last month. “The assistant coaches would say I had a good game or I had a few good practices in a row, but it never seemed to benefit me at all. It was just frustrating.”
What also didn’t help was that Grandstaff had left for Columbus two days after the birth of his son. Being 1,000 miles from his newborn child weighed on Grandstaff throughout his short time at Ohio State, making it difficult for him to focus on basketball or academics like he admits he should have.
When Grandstaff logged only nine minutes in a 20-point mid-December loss to UConn, that was the final straw. His father called a meeting with Matta the next morning and informed him that at the end of the fall semester Grandstaff would transfer somewhere more playing time was available and he could be within driving distance of his son.
“I think my mind wasn’t really in the right place at all, but also I don’t think I had really good relationships with the coaching staff,” said Grandstaff, who is now at Depaul after a failed semster-long stint at Oklahoma. “There was a lot of stuff going on there and they weren’t winning at the same level they had before. It was just really hard. It was rough.”
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The loss of an elite shooter with size and athleticism was a longterm blow for Ohio State, but the Buckeyes probably could have overcome it if he was the only heralded freshman to leave. Instead, all three of Grandstaff’s freshman roommates also left within 24 hours of one-another at the end of a disappointing 14-loss 2015-16 season.
First to depart was Giddens, a surprise considering he had split time at center with Trevor Thompson as a freshman and appeared capable of earning a bigger role the following year if he developed his offensive skill set and learned to avoid foul trouble. Giddens declined comment through an Alabama spokesman last month, but a source said the Georgia native told Ohio State he was leaving to be closer to his mother, who suffered from an undisclosed illness.
Next to leave was Mitchell, who suffered a flurry of injuries late in his high school career and didn’t fulfill Ohio State’s vision of him as a playmaking point forward during an abbreviated freshman season. In addition to shooting poorly and picking up fouls at an alarming rate, Mitchell tallied more than one assist only twice in 23 games.
The final transfer was Harris, the lone Ohio native of the group and a player whom the Buckeyes had recruited since he was in eighth grade. He had averaged 2.8 points and 1.7 assists per game as the backup point guard behind fellow freshman JaQuan Lyle, but he had underperformed in the classroom.
“I had a great bond with my teammates, but I wasn’t getting the minutes I was promised, I didn’t have a good relationship with the coaching staff and I just didn’t feel comfortable,” Harris said. I felt like I could have been a key player, like I could have started or contributed. I felt like I could have done more.”
In a rare moment of candor and public frustration at a charity golf tournament, Matta had some harsh words for his former players. Said Matta in a video shot by This Week Community News, “We got rid of some guys that we needed to get rid of. We got rid of problems, but we kept solutions.”
While that statement may have temporarily reassured the Ohio State fan base, any optimism didn’t last long. The Buckeyes went 17-15 last season despite returning their six leading scorers from the previous year, a sign that all the transfers may not have been addition by subtraction like Matta tried to portray.
The lone remaining member of Ohio State’s 2015 class on last year’s team was Lyle, an unlikely scenario given that he was the final addition to the quintet. When Matta realized early in the 2014-15 season that there was a chance DeAngelo Russell would be a one-and-done-caliber prospect, he then authorized his staff to begin seriously pursuing Lyle, an Indiana native who had previously committed to Louisville and signed with Oregon before failing to qualify academically.
Talented but immature and prone to bad decisions with the ball in his hands, Lyle drew the ire of Matta frequently despite averaging just over 11 points and 4 assists per game both of the past two seasons. Only after Lyle was arrested last month in Indiana on charges of public intoxication and criminal mischief to a vehicle did Ohio State finally reveal he had left the program on April 11, leaving no members of the 2015 class still on the roster.
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One painful aspect of that exodus for Ohio State was the nagging reminders of what could have been. Three coveted 2015 prospects from the state of Ohio went on to have success at out-of-state programs.
Franklin native Luke Kennard is likely to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft this month after a brilliant two-year career at Duke. Cleveland native Carlton Bragg showed flashes of five-star potential in two erratic years at Kansas before transferring to Arizona State this spring. And Shaker Heights native Esa Ahmad was one of the top forwards on West Virginia Sweet 16 team this past season.
With those three playing in the NCAA tournament the past two years and floundering Ohio State watching from home, that only increased the vitriol directed at the departed members of the Buckeyes’ 2015 class. That common experience actually strengthened the bond among the ex-Ohio State freshmen.
“We all had a great bond and honestly we still keep in touch to this day,” Harris said. “We’ve got a group chat and when something’s on our mind, we’ll message the group.”
Grandstaff has rededicated himself to basketball and school and is hoping to be a key part of a basketball renaissance at Depaul. Harris spent a year getting his grades together at New Mexico State and is now the projected starter at point guard for the Aggies. Giddens figures to emerge as a defensive anchor for an Alabama team expected to begin the season in the Top 25 next year. And Mitchell is hoping for a fresh start at Arizona State after a brief stop at UC Santa Barbara.
“I think we’re all going to do well,” Grandstaff said. “A lot of Ohio State fans don’t like us, but it would be nice for all of us to be able to turn it around and end up having really good college careers.”
While there’s still time for the members of Ohio State’s ill-fated 2015 class to revive their careers, their legacy in Columbus is probably cemented in stone.
They’re the heralded but underachieving group that Matta couldn’t develop, a failure from which he never recovered.
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