No one can question the fact that Thad Matta has had a tremendous positive effect on the Ohio State basketball team since taking over in the 2004-05 season. He climbed the ladder quickly and was named the head coach at Ohio State after just four years of collegiate head coaching experience between Butler and Xavier. In just his third season with the team, he took the Buckeyes to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game. He rode the wave of success for about a decade. The Buckeyes were in the NCAA Tournament every year except one and were competing for Big Ten regular season and tournament championships every year. They even won the NIT the lone year they failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
In recent years, however, he has not fared as well. This year marked the second straight that his team failed to reach the NCAA Tournament which has never happened in his career, and this year marked the first time a Matta-coached team failed to win 20 games. What has happened to Matta’s program, and how long will he have to turn in around?
There was a time when I thought there was no way Matta would leave the program without it being on his own terms. I don’t think he is in danger of losing his job quite yet, but if he keeps this trajectory going for another year or two, he may not be so safe. Matta has banked a lot of credit with the Ohio State basketball program, but Buckeyes’ fans and boosters are not known for their patience when it comes to their major sports programs. They invest a lot of money into their programs, and they expect to see great results.
Matta’s first couple years at Ohio State were a success, but he really put himself on the map during the 2006-07 season. He was able to bring in Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, and David Lighty all in the same class. The team won the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships and made it all the way to the NCAA Tournament Championship before losing to a stacked Florida team that had more experience. He lost all of those players (except Lighty) to the NBA the following season, but he reloaded with more talent by getting commitments from Evan Turner, Kosta Koufos, and Jon Diebler.
He kept owning the Big Ten and made another run to the NCAA Final Four in 2011-12 behind the senior leadership of William Buford and the sensational sophomore group of Aaron Craft, Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith. Matta kept getting great recruits and filling the holes in the roster each year. It didn’t matter if he had guys that left early for the NBA or if they stayed all four years, he always had someone to step in and fill their spots.
Ever since Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith graduated following the 2013-14 season, and LaQuinton Ross left early, the Buckeyes just haven’t been the same. The team lost to Dayton in the first round of the tournament and just didn’t seem to have the star power they once did. They had started to backslide a little without a go-to scorer after Deshaun Thomas left for the draft following his junior season. Matta caught lightning in a bottle with De’Angelo Russell in the 2014-15 season, and was able to ride him to one more tournament win. However, it seems that Coach Matta is not able to reload like he once did.
Some people say his recruiting has gone downhill, and he can’t get the talent he once did. Other people think he is bringing in the wrong mix of players. His recruits are still rated highly, but they are all just great athletes who don’t have the ability to shoot or take over the offensive end of the floor. He can’t get a dominant big man or lights-out shooter. Maybe he is falling behind the times and not adapting to the changes in the game, or he might not be getting the most out of his recruits like he used to.
I understand that a program can’t be great every year and will go through bad seasons at times, but this is the worst stretch the Buckeyes have seen since they brought in Coach Matta. Major college sports are about winning and money, and Value City Arena was pretty empty at times this year. Matta has built up a lot of good will over his tenure, so he should have a little wiggle room. Hopefully he can get back to his winning ways and take back his hold on the Big Ten. Losing to Rutgers in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament was embarrassing, and I don’t want to see his seat get any warmer.