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.

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