Comparing Thad Matta to the Legends

AndyVance's picture
January 4, 2013 at 5:24p

Comparing two coaches within the same sport is notoriously difficult. Analyzing the relative success or failure of a major college football or basketball program involves a number of variables and inherent subjectivity. What is the most important thing on which to base the evaluation?

  • Is it purely wins?
  • What about "big games" against ranked opponents?
  • Which is more important, simply making the NCAA tournament, or playing into the upper rounds?
  • How important are conference titles and tournament wins compared to NCAA tourney performance?

You start to get the picture that there are an almost infinite number of variables in play, and the priorities from one fan or analyst to the next can be radically different. For college basketball coaches, the criteria are much different from - and much more complex than - for college football coaches, precisely because the number of games played and the post-season structure are much, much different.

Let me pause for a moment to make one admission: I feel far less comfortable asserting my "expertise" as a casual basketball analyst than in discussing football, so I'm going out on a limb a bit here, but recent discussions on the topic of Ohio State University head basketball coach Thad Matta have me dying to enter the fray. Why, you ask? Because the discussion is fascinating, and because most of us as fans are naturally pulled toward one of two extreme positions: either A.) Matta is the best coach Ohio State has had in 50 years and that's the end of it; or B.) Thad Matta is John Cooper all over again. [Note: Before you go crazy, I'm not saying that is my opinion.]

During one of the aforementioned discussions in the forums, another commenter dared readers to compare Matta's results with those of other Ohio State basketball coaches for some much-needed perspective:

Look at Matta's record compared to every other OSU coach in history.  Look what he inherited and how quickly he turned it around.  He is so far above this sort of criticism that this blog post is a complete joke.

It's a great point. Matta is head and shoulders above his predecessors - the tale of the tape proves that. I had already taken a peek at Matta's performance compared to that of legendary Ohio State coach Fred Taylor, and I was impressed, as I mentioned following the Buckeyes disappointing loss to Kansas last month:

Are we better off under Matta than under his predecessors? The W-L column, Big Ten titles and two Final Four appearances speak for themselves. If you go back and look at the record books, Matta's accomplishments have already reached par with those of even the legendary Fred Taylor in terms of NCAA Tournament Appearances and his winning percentage is significantly better (77.3% vs. 65.3%).

Matta is also on track to pass the 300-win mark by 2016, his (in theory) 12th season at the helm. Taylor picked up win #297 in his 18th and final season as head coach of the Buckeyes.

In other words - Matta has earned his page in the annals of Buckeye lore. Is he capable, however, of closing the deal and putting up wins in big games, when it matters most? Two games this season offer ample reasons to ask that question. Big Ten play will tell us a lot, not only about this team's abilities, but of those of its Coach, as well.

The bigger question about Matta's greatness as a coach, however, is this: how does he stack up against coaching legends not affiliated with Ohio State? For purposes of comparison, I picked the first four "legendary" coaches that popped into my head: Coach K, Bobby Knight, Dean Smith and John Wooden (I'd be hard pressed to think of four bigger names in college hoops, I think). Taking a look at only their first eight seasons to be fair to the young Ohio State coach, here is the raw data, courtesy of the gnomes at Wikipedia:

Coach Team Years Record Conference NCAA Berths Final Fours
Thad Matta Ohio State 2004-2012 221-65 (.773) 98-40 (.710) 6 2
Mike Krzyzewski Duke 1980-1988 174-84 (.674) 58-54 (.518) 5 2
Bob Knight Indiana 1971-1979 184-51 (.783) 101-31 (.765) 4 2
Dean Smith N. Carolina 1961-1969 147-62 (.703) 77-35 (.688) 3 3
John Wooden UCLA 1948-1956 161-62 (.722) 77-24 (.762) 3 0

Couple of notes: Prior to 1975, the NCAA tournament was very different from the one we know today. Among the biggest differences is that in '75, the tournament format changed to allow more than one team per conference to participate. Prior to that, teams like the 1974 Indiana Hoosiers were excluded from the tournament regardless of their ranking (12-2 and tied for 1st in the conference, in this case, but still excluded). The 1974 tournament was the last year this happened; comparisons with Smith & Wooden, therefore, are not exactly apples to apples in terms of NCAA Tourney performance - just a warning before someone knocks my teeth in for not mentioning it.

So, how good is Matta? In terms of wins, he's head and shoulders above the field; his teams have played more games in eight seasons than the other "legends" in this comparison - 286, versus only 209 for Dean Smith, for example. In terms of winning percentage over his first 8 seasons, then, he stands second only to "The General," the incomparable Bobby Knight.

In terms of tournament performance, Matta has placed teams in the Big Dance six of eight years, but remember that fewer than 25 teams (and as few as eight) were invited to play prior to 1975, when the tourney expanded to a 32 team field. In the Matta era, of course, a minimum of 65 teams had the opportunity to garner an invite, so his chances of doing so were double those of Knight, Smith and Wooden.

Looking at conference play, Matta holds his own, though both Knight and Wooden fared slightly better in their first eight seasons in terms of winning percentage. He trailed only the late, great Coach Wooden in conference regular season and tournament wins, but outpaced even Bobby Knight in his dominance of the Big Ten in those first eight years.

Okay, but what about against active coaches? Well, let's compare Matta against the coaches currently leading the country and see how he fares. I'm running the same dataset as above, but for coaches currently in the AP Top 10 (as of Week 9) who have at least eight seasons at their current position, and only for the 2004-2012 seasons.

Coach Team Years Record conference NCAA Berths Final Fours
MIKE KRZYZEWSKI Duke 2004-2012 233-51 (.820) 96-32 (.750) 8 1
Rick Pitino Louisville 2004-2012 211-76 (.735) 95-43 (.688) 6 1
Bill Self Kansas 2004-2012 245-44 (.848) 111-19 (.854) 8 2
Jim Boeheim Syracuse 2004-2012 214-70 (.754) 92-46 (.667) 6 0
Thad Matta Ohio State 2004-2012 221-65 (.773) 98-40 (.710) 6 2
Mark Few Gonzaga 2004-2012 209-58 (.783) 100-14 (.877) 8 0

Coach K and Bill Self set themselves apart from the rest of the pack by the simple virtue of the fact that they've each won a National Championship during these years, while the others have failed to do so. As mentioned above, only six of the current top 10 teams were included, as the remaining four include coaches at schools like Michigan and Minnesota where there coaches were hired sometime after 2004.

So, how does Matta compare? He's certainly won a lot of games, with only K and Self winning more, but his winning percentage is in the middle of the pack. No one should complain about winning 77% of your games, of course, but that isn't the only metric to be considered. Conference winning percentage is favorable, though the differences between the Big Ten and conferences like the WCC could be a debate in and of itself.

In terms of NCAA berths, Matta hangs with the pack at six of eight years invited, and in those six years his teams reached the Final Four one-third of the time - in fact, his two appearances in the NCAA Semifinals is matched only by Self; greats like Pitino and Krzyzewski only made it that far once in eight years.

This is a pretty cursory analysis; a much deeper look into the differences between Matta and the greats could focus on performance against ranked opponents, looking at the RPI, etc., but the crux of the matter is this: on paper, Matta is as good as they come.

His biggest black mark is that he has failed, in eight seasons, to win a National Title. How big a black mark is that? Compared with the eight other coaches we've examined in this analysis, only Bobby Knight and Bill Self won a National Title in their first eight seasons at Indiana and Kansas, respectively. It took Mike Krzyzewski 11 seasons to win a title, it took John Wooden 16 years to do so, and the legendary Dean Smith didn't do it until his 21st season with the Tar Heels. Jim Boeheim, in fact, took 27 seasons to win his first National Title at Syracuse - how's that for patience?

When it comes to keeping fans happy, there is no magic formula or set of metrics that guarantee a coach will be universally beloved. Even legendary figures like Wooden and Woody Hayes had their detractors back in the day, and in some cases, still do today. For some of us, myself included, there are reasons to be critical of Matta, and I personally believe as a young coach he still has room to grow, and continue building a truly legendary program here at Ohio State.

Our football program is among the best in the nation, and has been consistently for more than a decade now. And as we all know, it's only getting better. Our basketball program, under Matta's leadership, has become one of the best basketball programs in the country, and - I hope - it will continue to get better, and perhaps reach the level of success at the highest levels that many of us believe is still possible.

Comments Show All Comments

Bucks43201's picture

Andy - you are a really talented writer. I enjoy your work. Great stuff...again.

"You win with people." - Woody Hayes

d5k's picture

I would only add that the NCAA berths line in the last table includes the sanctioned postseason ban year (Matta's first year) counting against him.  He should also get some credit for beating the #1 team in the country that year, kicking off his tenure with a bang.  And ultimately I agree with everything you posted here, which supports my counter-arguments in the other less-intelligent thread.

AndyVance's picture

Good point about Matta's first season and the tourney. Your points on the "other thread" were, and are, valid. I still think it's appropriate to ask questions of Matta, as there still appears to me to be room for growth, i.e. winning against Duke or Kansas this year, which were winnable games, and obviously to winning the Tournament. Should his head be on the chopping block? Absolutely not. Is there room to grow yet? Sure thing.

Bolt's picture

It's appropriate to ask. In fact, I feel honored that the coach of the Ohio State basketball team is being compared to some of the all time great coaches in NCAABB history and that this is even a discussion. There's room for growth no matter where you are and no matter what your situation. Believe it or not there's room for improvement at Duke with Coach K. Believe it or not there's room for improvement with Calipari and Roy Williams right now. Again, it's only a matter of time as long as he's hanging around the top that he'll have a team or two that will put it all together, get everything to bounce their way and make it all the way through the tourney unscathed.

brylee's picture

Thank you for posting this article, and quantifying the numbers, as a counter to the 'other' article that was posted earlier.
I posted this in that other blog, and feel apt to say it again, "some people, no matter what, just need to bitch."

AndyVance's picture

To be fair to the "other thread," I am among those who believes Matta has not yet lived up the potential of his talent. My reason for pointing out his successes, I guess, was in part to remind others, as much as for myself, that "yes, he really is that good." 
High performing coaches are held to higher standards. Jim Tressel was held to a higher standard after he won the BCS Title, and Urban Meyer will be held to a higher standard after going 12-0 in his first season.
Thad Matta, by virtue of the success had in the first 8 seasons, is now held to a higher standard (fairly or not), too.

Clmm297's picture

Well done my friend....well done!

d5k's picture

Sure, he can potentially win even more than he has.  But I don't think he is doing anything noticeably wrong that he needs to change in order to do so.  He needs to get as good a recruiting class in 2014 to replace Craft, Smith, Thomas in particular as he has in every year where he had more than a couple scholarships to offer.  And hopefully some of the guys we have develop a better shooting stroke, but I have no doubt the coaches are doing everything they can to that end...
In other words, I can't think of any significant criticisms where I can act like an armchair coach.  I had a couple for Tressel such as going for it on 4th down or less transparent play calling that might have made a hugely successful run even better.  I really can't think of any for Matta and have been able to easily debunk the typical ones that the overly negative fans have come up with such as "not using the bench" aka not benching a 4 year starter senior and one of the top 2 guards in OSU history for a freshman who can't shoot or play consistent defense at his level.
Btw, I hold Adam Neft partially responsible for all the venom Matta got last year for "not using the bench".  He brought it up pretty much every night.  It was usually like BadDog where he included it along with "Matta is a great coach but.." or "I'm not a coach but" where he tried to sound less critical while baiting the negative fans.
Sullinger got criticism from ESPN types when he went off on the media not believing in the team while ESPN didn't realize it was local homer media, in particular call-in shows etc where the non-stop criticism came over losing a couple games in an incredibly tough conference.  Matta also made the sarcastic joke when the players transferred that he doesn't use his bench anyway so it shouldn't matter.  There's no reason Matta should have to answer such stupid questions nonstop every week.  I swear I heard some variation of that question in every call-in show last year.  Basically if Buford missed 2 shots the armchair fans wanted Jordan Sibert in the game or something.

baddogmaine's picture

Basically if Buford missed 2 shots the armchair fans wanted Jordan Sibert in the game or something.

Oh c'mon DSK. If you are talking Sibert you are taking the 2010-2011 year, when we lost to KY not because Buford missed 2 shots but because Bufrd missed 14 out of 16 - and committed two turnovers and did almost no rebounding. You can still defend leaving Buford on the floor for 37 minutes in that game if you are of a mind to but at least stick with the facts and avoid gross exageration just to ridicule me.

d5k's picture

Alright I did use hyperbole there but Sam Thompson wasnt going to light it up last year either. The point I would make is every shooter has off nights and missing 10 shots in a row doesnt change the chances of the next 1 going in for a good shooter that has taken thousands of shots.

AndyVance's picture

Hey now, you guys acted like I was an idiot earlier or saying Drebs was streaky, i.e. going on an amazing run of five or six shots in a row and then going cold and bricking four or five shots in a row. You've just made the same point I was making - "every shooter has off night," and when your entire offensive production as a shooter is the high-risk shot, it is especially noticeable.

baddogmaine's picture

I don't think I have ever attacked you Andy, though you seem to be including me in "guys." If I have I apologize as deeply as I possibly can. I think you have been one of the few who has talen real questions seriously and tried to answer them.
As for streakiness my position is that a coach can build team design and game management trying to adjust for high-volume shooters going cold. But in a lose-and-you-are-out situation when a player has gone so cold that the team is in danger of losing I think it is the coach's responsibility at that moment to look for an adjustment more strategically defensible that simply hoping that the next one goes in. There are times when there may be no other apparent option - three of your starters have fouled out; the cold shooter is your absoilute best defender; whatever - but Matta is not often in that position. Though this year he may be getting close with Craft.

AndyVance's picture

No need for apologies, my friend - no one really "attacked me," per se, I was being a little tongue-in-cheek with DSK for our back and forth about Deebs :)

d5k's picture

My point in the other thread was that Diebler shooting a 3 is no less streaky than Shannon Scott shooting an 8 foot floater, but you get 3 points for Diebler's shot... in terms of selecting shots, it was probably one of the best options in OSU basketball history.  And my point here is that just because he misses a few in a row doesn't mean he is less likely to make the next shot.

AndyVance's picture

I get the concept of probability - economics is one of my areas of expertise, and they make you study probability pretty early on.
From a coaching standpoint, though, it's a pretty well-known phenomenon that when a player is off, he's off, and when he's the "hot hand," you feed the hot hand. Is it wise to take a guy off the floor when he's "cold?" Well, obviously that's the point of contention, I suppose - your argument about pure play probability says, no, if he's a 50% shooter from behind the arc, you let him do his thing and it will all turn out in the long-run.
On the other hand, others would say if the guy has missed 10 in a row, he's so flustered that he'll try to force something to happen and invariably fail. Shooting a basketball is not, of course, a true coin-flip exercise in probability because the variables in making a shot are infinitely more complicated - shot selection, presence/capability of the defender, basic shot mechanics, etc.
I haven't seen a study of the effects of missing shots on subsequent shots in a game, but I'm guessing some grad student somewhere will use that as his thesis.

baddogmaine's picture

DSK, you're still essentially ready to say anything, no matter how off point, to mock me. Sam Thompson was not on the 2010-2011 roster, he was not an option for Matta when Buford was killing our title hopes. At least for the moment can we please stick with KY, since you are the one who invoked Jordan Sibert. You want to talk last year or this year I'll be glad to do that next.
At no time have I ever said that Buford should have been sat for the rest of the game, to be replaced by someone who was not ready to carry that weight. I have suggested that when someone is taking a LOT of shots and missing almost all of them what that does to both an offensive and defensive flow is so disruptive that there might have been little loss by replacing Buford with Smith - or Sibert or Days. But I don't think that was Matta's best option. I have yet to hear anything other than the blind trust in Matta's infallibility justifying not taking Buford out for a minute or two here and there to try to calm him down (and during those strectches seeing how his sub does); or simply telling his team, because as the coach he has the right to do so, that Buford should be shooting less. Period. Would that have changed how the team had been playing all year? yes; but there was no tomorrow, and what Buford was doing was taking tomorrow away. Again, you can disagree about strategy but bringing Thompson in to this discussion only makes it seem that you are unwilling or unable to do analysis seriously.

d5k's picture

I was talking about last year originally.  You swung it to 2011 against Kentucky.
My post in the other thread summarizes the issue you are having I think.  You basically have the results oriented thinking that 99% of people who don't really understand probability have.  You think you can judge the likelihood of making a shot based on the last handful of shots taken rather than the 1000s of shots in practice and games that lead Matta to estimate the quality of future shots from a player.  There is variance associated with shooting a basketball.  Just because you don't fully appreciate the nature of probability distributions doesn't mean Matta is making incorrect decisions.  Like I said you are just one of many many people that don't get this concept but you are vocal enough in the misconception that I feel I have to correct it.  If a coin turns up heads 10 times in a row you don't assume heads are more likely, particularly if you have flipped it 1000 times and demonstrated it is a "fair" coin.

rdubs's picture

There is a lot here.  Kudos for this very well thought out approach.  There is little doubt that Matta is a very good coach, he has made OSU into a perennial B1G power despite being at an overwhelmingly football school.  
Self is a big time coach.  I would take him over anyone at this point.  KU has won 8 straight Big XII championships.  8 STRAIGHT.  And the only season before that streak that he was at the school for they got second.  Tress's streak at OSU was impressive, but 8 straight is unreal to me.  They have had a bunch of dudes leave and they just seem to improve.

LadyBuck's picture

Let's also remember who Self is winning those Big XII titles against: Texas, Baylor, TCU, KState, Texas Tech, A&M (untlt they left), Nebraska (until they left), Colorado (until they left), ISU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and now West Virginia. Not exactly basketball titans. I agree that 8 in a row is impressive, but I'm more impressed with Self's OOC play. He's one hell of a coach.
That's not to say that I would prefer him to Thad. I quite like the fact that Thad is here. I think he fits into this program, and, more importantly, into the OSU culture. I think coaches like Self want to be at schools where basketball in king, and that is definitely not us. Thad, however, is fine with the football program getting all the attention -in fact, he relishes it. In that respect, I think he fits with us perfectly.

AndyVance's picture

Great points, but I think it's important to note one thing about the Big 12 - during the past eight seasons (the reference period for my analysis), the Big 12 was ranked in the top three of all conferences by RPI something like 6 out of 8 years... The Big Ten has been near the top for at least half that time, but based on RPI, Kansas' conference opponents are nothing to sneeze at...

btalbert25's picture

In an earlier post, I compared Ohio State's final four appearances to other temas since 2004 when Thad was hired.  Simple answer is, Kentucky, Kansas, UNC, Louisville, Duke all have 2 final fours in that time.  In the conference only Michigan State has more appearances since Thad joined the Bucks.  That is saying a lot. 
Thad wasn't going to win a title at X or Butler, so I really only count the years at Ohio State and I say look how long it took some other great coaches to win a title when they coached at premier programs.  Roy Williams never won one at Kansas, he had to move to UNC before he could finally get a ring.  He was at Kansas a LONG LONG time and it doesn't get any bigger than Kansas really.  Rick Pitino won his first title at Kentucky 7 years into his tenure.  Calipari was at Memphis for a decade and despite constantly having HUGE recruiting classes every year, never won a title.  
I'm not sure Thad will ever win one at Ohio State.  Let's face it, it takes a lot of talent and luck to make it through the NCAA tournament.  What I'm very confident in, though, is that there's no one else who would be willing to take the Ohio State job who would get the Buckeyes to a higher level than Thad has them at now. 

AndyVance's picture

I think you've hit a very important point here - you don't typically win titles overnight. Others have noted that "the best team doesn't always win the tournament," and I suppose there's an argument to be made there.
Your point, though, actually lines up with the data - Look at Coach K's first 8 seasons... Good, but not legendary. John Wooden didn't go on his legendary run of NCAA titles until the end of his career, after he'd been at UCLA for a long, long time.
As I've argued on other threads dealing with B1G football coaching, creating a program that can be championship quality any given season takes time. Urban Meyer is building a dynasty, but he didn't walk in to a situation that required a total rebuilding, per se, because the program had been a top-tier program for years when he arrived.
Matta has had more of a chore on his plate, I think, as did K and Dean Smith when they earned their iconic positions on Tobacco Road.

baddogmaine's picture

I have never disagreed that Matta has won more consistently than the coaches who preceeded him but the key word here is "consistently." Randy Ayers was woefully inconsistent but he was the national coach of the year in 1991, and twice was B1G coach of the year. His 1990-91 squad went 27-4. The next year we lost only six games, one of which was in the NCAA Eiite Eight to an AACC side that would play for the NC. The wheels fell off after that but Ayers did not give us unrelenting heartbreak. Jim Jackson was a freshman the first year Ayers coached the Buckeyes - I don't know but I suspect that Ayers was a big part in getting into Scarlet and Grey one of the best of his era.
Jim O'Brien's first year in Columbus was sanction-hindered. His next year we went to the Final Four and he was a national coach of the year. He was B1G coach of the year in 2001 also. In 2002 he lead an OSU team that was expected to struggle to its then record fourth consecutive NCAA berth. The next two years his wheels fell off but if credit is given to Matta for the groundwork he laid at Butler that is helping Brad Stevens' success then O'Brien must be given credit for creating the possibility of winning basketball at OSU that Matta is now continuing. And whether or not the family of Aleksandar Radojevic ever received an improper benefit does not change that O'Brien did a lot for OSU - just as JT's legacy is not destroyed by what happened off the field.
Give Matta a ton of credit but any suggestion that everything between Fred  Taylor's good years and him was a disaster is simply wrong.

Poison nuts's picture

Any suggestion that Thad Matta isn't a significant improvement over any coach between him Fred Taylor is also simply wrong.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

AndyVance's picture

You're both right. Jimmy O seems to be consistently under-appreciated here, I think, while some of us are perhaps a little too hard on Matta at times.

rightfield's picture

Matta has taken a program that was maybe a touch better than mediocre over the 20 years before he took over  to a nationally top tier program. Yes, there were some lightning in a bottle years or couple years but no one could keep the winning sustained. Matta has taken a up and down program and put it firmly on the track that only the elite schools ride on.
   It is proof of his incredible program building that he is compared to legendary coaches. When he retires from OSU he will be the winningest coach in school history with streets and or buildings named after him. Heck, probably a bronze statue infront of the Schott.
    The coach that follows him will be very grateful for all the road grading that Matta did to raise the bball awarness and expectations at OSU. We are watching greatness so just enjoy it while it last.

Its good to be the king

d5k's picture

I get mad when we lose games, particularly in the tournament, just like everyone else.  But even if I think Matta may have made a couple mistakes in the game, he makes less mistakes than 99% of coaches and puts his players in very good position the vast majority of the time.  The legitimate criticisms are minor, while most of the long term criticisms are invalid for various reasons, primarily because of the scoreboard factor (2 final fours, ridiculous win %, dominating the conference).  The using the bench argument is also stupid because we are using the bench now, with our #8 guy getting meaningful minutes every game.  The critics can feel free to assume that their blathering on call-in shows finally got through to Matta rather than the truth of the matter: there are 3 bench players who are good enough to play meaningful minutes.

Bobcat04's picture

I'm just kind of blown away that he hasn't been able to do a better job this year against teams with a pulse. Anyone near the top 15, and it's been automatic loss. With all that talent. 

Bolt's picture

I think we're coming to find out just how much we miss Jared Sullinger and Bill Buford. We're young, terrible shooters and get next to nothing out of the big men. This might not be the greatest year for Ohio State basketball...but it's comforting to know that in a down year we're still going to be a 20 win tournament bound team. Thanks Thad. This team will be fine in the coming years as the sophomore class develops offensively.