Settling the Matta: Unfinished Business

AndyVance's picture
March 18, 2013 at 1:58p

What a difference eight games can make...

Feeling somewhat like a sinner following a miraculous conversion experience, I find myself singing the indelible line from Amazing Grace: "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."

Thad Matta is a helluva basketball coach.

Ohio State University head basketball coach Thad MattaFor those who have read my work through the course of the season, I've admitted that I've not been a "fan" of Thad Matta. No, I'm not one of the drunken masses who thinks we should spike his head at half court and bring in someone new to take the tiller of the Buckeyes roundball squad, but I haven't been entirely satisfied yet, either. At least, that is, prior to the latter half of the 2013 season.

My problem has been one of expectations, I suppose. On the one hand, I was a huge fan of Jim O'Brien, even despite his poor decision making in the NCAA infractions that ultimately spelled his doom. What I liked about O'Brien, I think, is the same thing many of us love about Urban Meyer, and to the extreme, about Coach Kerry Coombs: passion, drive, grit.

O'Brien was, for this young Buckeye at least, the type of coach you want leading your team: a hard-nosed sonofabitch who took the talent he had and wrung every last drop of potential out of them.

When Matta arrived, it was clear he was a superior recruiter. Without denigrating the Buckeyes who played for Jimmy O, he recruited middling talent and in many cases overachieved with them. Matta, on the other hand, was going to be bringing in Blue Chippers, McDonald's All-Americans and One-And-Dones with dizzying regularity.

That made it all the more troubling, then, when Matta couldn't seal the deal. Well, or at least so it seemed. Twenty-win seasons are nice; winning conference championships and tournament titles are simply a given... But with Oden-, Turner- and Sullinger-type talent stalking the court at the Value City Arena, losses against top-tier teams like Duke and Kansas were perhaps more obvious than they had been a decade prior.

As others have opined ad infinitum during the past three weeks, Matta is indeed an elite coach. BUT, Ohio State is a "football school," so we unwashed gentiles couldn't possibly see how great our playcaller-in-chief really is, because we unfairly view everything through the lens of football, where the expectation is to win a National Championship every season.

Be that as it may, there are two undeniable facts of Matta's tenure: he is head and shoulders better than any coach since Fred Taylor, and he has failed to win a National Championship thus far.

Let's talk about the former first.

Comparing coaches to determine "who is greater" is a notoriously subjective task. The question was even asked recently, is Jim Tressel greater than Woody (the answer, by the way, is no, though The Vest very well could have made a case had his tenure not been cut short), so you can understand that the factors determining is X>Y are fairly complex, and not universally accepted in most cases.

With that in mind, let's put Thad on the racks against the legendary Fred Taylor (hey, he has a street named after him, so he's a legend in my book):

Coach Team Years Record B1G B1G Titles NCAA Berths Final Fours Tournament Record
Thad Matta Ohio State 2004-2013 247-72 (.774) 111-45 (.712) 5 7 2 14-6 (.700)
Fred Taylor Ohio State 1958-1976 297-158 (.653) 158-102 (.608) 7 5 4 14-4 (.778)

So yeah, Matta looks pretty good on paper. His winning percentage is considerably better, and within probably two more seasons, he'll surpass Taylor's total wins - a feat he'll accomplish in fewer than a dozen seasons versus Taylor's 18. Already he's scored more tournament appearances, though Taylor's Buckeyes made it to the Final Four almost every time they got an invite to the postseason, with the fifth time marking an Elite Eight departure.

And so it comes down to the inescapable fact that until the Buckeyes cut down the nets after the final game of the NCAA season, Matta will always be the greatest Ohio State head basketball coach since Fred Taylor. By the way, for more reading on how awesome Matta is when compared with legendary coaches like Coach K, Dean Smith, and Bobby Knight, read this and this.

Now as to the expectation about winning the National Championship as the precursor to Matta earning the universal fan acclaim he has otherwise rightfully earned, is that fair? I went back and looked at how quickly other big-time coaches took to get to the winner's circle to see if it could be done more quickly than a potential Buckeye victory in Matta's ninth season:

  • Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: 11 seasons
  • Rick Pitino, Kentucky: 7 seasons
  • Bill Self, Kansas: 5 seasons
  • Jim Boeheim, Syracuse: 27 seasons
  • Bobby Knight, Indiana: 5 seasons
  • Dean Smith, North Carolina: 21 seasons
  • John Wooden, UCLA: 16 seasons
  • John Calipari, Kentucky: 3 seasons
  • Billy Donovan, Florida: 10 seasons

Only 11 active coaches have championship rings to their credit, as it turns out. Coach K is the Dean of this elite fraternity, holding four to his credit, tieing with Col. Adolph Rupp of Kentucky for second-most championships in history, well behind the incomparable John Wooden, who won a nifty 10 titles, a feat never likely to be repeated. Looking back in history, Bobby Knight and Jim Calhoun each had three to their credit, while several coaches have won a pair apiece.

I give you that trivia lesson to say this: the sentiment that Matta has to win a title to achieve "elite" status, a feeling I once held previously, doesn't stand up to the statistical scrutiny of reality. Truth is, very few coaches win titles, though several great coaches have won several championships. It's something of a paradox, actually, though the oft-bemoaned parity of the modern game is making it increasingly likely that a coach will either go an entire successful tenure without winning a title (Bo Ryan, while extremely punchable, has had an extremely good run at Wisconsin, for example), or win one title in an otherwise sterling career (I'm looking at you, Tom Izzo).

With that in mind, it's make or break time for Matta, because I'm going to join a perhaps optimistic chorus of experts saying that if there ever was a year for Thad to bring home a tourney title, this is it.

So how does it happen?

According to statistical genius Nate Silver, the Buckeyes have roughly a 5.8% chance of winning the tournament, behind prohibitive favorites Louisville (22.7%) and Indiana (19.6%). Ohio State as a one-seed in 2011, by the way, was a 19.1% favorite that season, and lost to Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen.

Silver's stats, by the way, make it look as though a Louisville vs. Indiana title game is the most-likely outcome, with the two teams rated as a 34.2% and 36.1% shot to reach the final game, respectively. Last year the guru's data was correct, with Kentucky projected as a 26.7% shot to win. In the aforementioned 2011 season, on the other hand, UConn was a total longshot.

SI's Luke Winn concurs that the Cardinals and the Hoosiers are the teams to beat this season, but has the "freight train that is Ohio State" besting Wisconsin (again) to win a relatively weak West Region. It is the weakness of this region, in fact, that has me taking the Buckeye fairly deep into the tournament, and facing off against two other B1G teams before it's all said and done with.

Consider the path to the title for the Bucks: taking care of business against the Iona Gaels (their mascot is named Killian, which is a passable mainstream beer) and Iowa State (there's your West Region sleeper upset, btw) before a good contest against the Lobos and another grinder against the fighting Bo Ryans (yes, I think the Badgers will upset the 'zags).

From there, Louisville will most likely take care of business against the Spartans, though I wouldn't count Izzo out in that contest - Michigan State could well have ended the Buckeyes B1G tournament hopes, and Izzo may be pound-for-pound the best coach in the conference.

In the South, Kansas will probably have a much tougher time against Florida than they will against UNC, and I'm taking the Gators simply because I refuse to pick all one-seeds in my bracket, and this seems as likely an upset as any. The striped Creans will not be denied in the meat grinder that is the East Region, setting up a Final Four with two one-seeds, a two and a three.

We know the Buckeyes can handle the Hoosiers, and we know that Matta has turned around an 0-3 start against ranked opponents to a 3-3 record against teams in the Top 5, culminating in an 8-0 run since the Madness in Madison. The "Big Mo," as it were, heavily favors the Buckeyes, who are indeed Battle Tested at this point in the season.

With Selection Sunday, also came the righteous indignation that after being seemingly overrated early in the season, the Buckeyes were now being undervalued after a stellar closing argument. This also plays into the Buckeyes' favor, as the anti-love from the media luminaries will give Matta plenty of bulletin board fodder in hopes that the team will play "angry," with the proverbial chip on the shoulder. That can't hurt in a tournament run.

Playing in Los Angeles, I'll argue, is the biggest challenge the team faces. Aside from fears of jet lag and the general feeling of funk that comes from flying across the country in a tin can with wings, L.A. may be the most distracting host city of the four regional venues. Indianapolis, of course, would have been the most Buckeye-friendly, with Washington, D.C., a close second.

As others have written, flying to Jerry World isn't much better than flying to L.A., but one would be hard-pressed to picture the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex being more potentially-distracting than Hollywood. Given the "Man on a Mission" mentality that has gripped the Buckeyes in recent games, particularly from the Rosy-cheeked Avenger, hopefully my concerns about SoCal are simply paranoia.

The factors favoring the Buckeyes this season are, somewhat surprisingly, extremely favorable when taken in totality: a now-underrated team is playing inspired basketball with momentum at its back in the weakest region of the tournament. Having already defeated the best teams in the toughest conference in the country and seemingly conquered the demons that plagued them in the first half of the season, Ohio State is poised to do something that hasn't been done in 53 years: bring home a national championship and cement Thad Matta's place as the finest head coach in the history of the program.

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