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 COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - It's not an injured player who is the biggest question mark for the Ohio State basketball team. Everyone's keeping a wary eye on the ailing coach.
Thad Matta, who led the Buckeyes to a 35-4 record and a second-place finish in the NCAA tournament last year, had two major surgeries this past summer for disk problems in his back.
``I'm gettin' better - slowly but surely,'' Matta said Thursday as he gingerly got into his car outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
He was at the football team's headquarters because ABC asked him to read the starting lineups to be shown before Saturday's game between the top-ranked Buckeyes and Michigan State. Matta even donned a sweater vest for the occasion, just like his football counterpart wears.
A week into the Buckeyes' preseason workouts, Matta is mobile and upbeat, but is limited in what and how much he can do. He still wears a brace on his right foot to correct a lingering ``foot drop'' that is a result of nerve damage resulting from the surgeries.
``I'm making progress every day. My back, most importantly, is getting stronger,'' Matta said on the team's media day. ``I still have the foot drop working, but I'm able to do pretty much whatever I want to do.''
Within reason, that is. Matta, a former player at Butler, was famous for jumping out on the floor to show a player how to take a charge or how to box out a big man. There's no more of that.
Also, he jokes that his assistants are considering putting a seat belt on the bench during games.
In practices, Matta, who got a raise last month to almost $2.5 million a year, has been forced to delegate more.
He missed the tail end of recruiting this summer because of surgery on Aug. 1 to remove a portion of the bony arch of a vertebra in his lower back. He had surgery on June 16 to repair a bulging disk.
Matta struggled with the name of the second surgery, joking, ``Yeah, laminectomy, that's it. I wanted to make sure it wasn't a vasectomy.''
Matta has tried hard to not let his players see what he's been going through.
``He really doesn't show it to us but I know it's at the back of his mind,'' point guard Jamar Butler said. ``It bothers him a little bit because he used to get out and do drills with us and run up and down the court every once in a while. Now he has that little limp in his leg.''
As if slowing down hasn't been enough of a problem for the frenetic Matta, he has been extremely self conscious about the foot brace. He made a presentation during halftime of an Ohio State football game earlier this fall and wore shorts - the brace clearly visible as he slowly made his way out onto the field.
``That's probably been the hardest thing,'' he said of wearing the brace.
The Buckeyes will hold an open practice on Saturday at Value City Arena from noon to 1 p.m. Admission is free, with the doors opening at 11 a.m. Matta will address the crowd after the scrimmage.
After two exhibition games, the Buckeyes - missing four starters including star freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. from last year's team - open their season Nov. 12 and 13 by hosting the NIT Preseason Tip-Off.
Matta, who turned 40 in July, recognizes that he is getting older and now must accommodate a creaky back.
``I'm not as involved in the workouts physically as I've been in the past, which is bad for the (assistant) coaches because I now tell them to go in and show them how to play post defense - when guys used to throw me into the basket support,'' he said.
``Those days are over for me.''

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