About Thad Matta - Can we Talk Seriously?

baddogmaine's picture
January 4, 2013 at 9:22a

I had some time to kill before the Fiesta Bowl so put on ESPN2 hoping to see the Wildcats make a basketball game of it. All during the early portions of the broadcast - which was as long as I could bear to watch AACC cruising - the announcers were absolutely gushing over the scUM sophomore point guard. And truth to tell Trey Burke deserves it - he is playing at a very high level. At this point there is no question who the best point guard in the B1G is, and it isn't Aaron Craft.

Burke is a really depressing story for a Buckeye fan and not just because he is making our enemy so good. What is really tormenting is that Burke is from Columbus. Columbus Ohio. And the biggest reason he is not playing his college ball in Columbus is that OSU did not recruit him. Not an offer, not even a serious look. Recruiting is an imperfect science: there are five stars who turn out to be frauds; there are no stars to turn out to have game. Burke could have been a high school ugly duckling who turned out to be a swan. Only he wasn't. He was the 2011 Ohio high school Mr. Basketball and a PARADE All-American. He signed with Michigan before that, but also before that he was already a major part of one of the country's best high school teams. In Columbus. He was on national radar. And Matta ignored him. (At least that is how I remember it. If I'm wrong please correct me. But a Columbus kid with connections to Sullinger does not give a verbal to Penn State and end up in Ann Arbor as Burke did if he is being pursued by Ohio State.)

There are only so many spots on a roster and a coach can't get everyone. We already had Aaron Craft and had no need to replace him quickly. But still, how do you let a player like Burke walk away without trying to get him? If Burke doesn't mind playing behind Craft why should Matta mind? You don't think the Buckeyes with Burke would be better than the Buckeyes without him? You don't think that stopping a Columbus to anyplace-but-Columbus pipeline before it gets started isn't a good idea? Matta just flat out blew it.

Matta knew for a 100% certainty that after the 2011 season he was going to need to replace Buford. He knew to a 95% certainty that he would need to replace Sullinger. And he knew that no one he had brought in off the bench in 2011 had been an adequate back-up for Craft. And Matta's response was to bring to Columbus but one player - an Italian kid who could hit threes if no one else was in the gym but had never learned defense, never played the kind of physical ball he would be facing in America, and now appears to be almost a complete bust.

The current roster has but one senior on it, and Evan Ravenel came by transfer. No one Matta recruited for the class of 2013 is still on the roster. Where are they? either they left and we don't miss them, in which case they probably should not have been recruited in the first place; or they left because they were unhappy, and player unhappiness is at least in part due to coaching.

After this year Matta knows 100% that he will need to replace Ravenel and 95% that he will need to replace Thomas. He has questions at center. Next year's team has some serious needs. So far the only good news for 2013 recruiting seems to be a 6'2" shooting guard who will add scoring which is good, and may well be the Burke he is not letting get away, which is good, but in terms of size Williams duplicates the only spot where the team is solid. Matta has a lot of work to do if he wants the 2013-4 team to be competitive.

Matta is touted as a great recruiter but it's not clear that that has ever been true.  Give him credit for attracting Conley, Oden, Kosta, Mullens and Sullinger to Columbus. Yes, these were GREAT recruits. Over the years he has also brought in the  Dieblers and Lightys - guys who were not spectacular but who contributed to strong starting fives. These were really really good recruits. The Buckeyes have had strong starting fives during the Matta years. But what we haven't had is much past the starting five. Few coaches at an elite level have traditionally used as few players as Matta.  Buckeye rosters have too often been filled with players not good enough to play at times when they were needed. Smith became a good starter in 2011 but the year before he was mostly unusable. This year is still quite young but so far no one off the bench except Scott has proven to be more than adequate, and not even whoever Matta starts at center has been better than adequate offensively.

Nor is it clear that Matta's player development has been all that good. Right now only six Buckeyes who played under Matta are in the NBA. Kosta, Conley and Sullinger were going to be pros whoever they played for. Maybe Matta made them better, maybe not. Cook and Mullens saw little playing time while in college, their success has little to do with Matta's coaching. Only Turner was turned into a pro by Matta. Lighty, Buford, Diebler - four years of Matta coaching did not make any of them good enough to stick, and Lighty did not even get drafted.

Matta has unquestionably made the team consistently better than it had been before him. This is not a close call. The question is what kind of success one is looking for. A few weeks ago I suggested that Brad Stevens is doing a better coaching job than Matta. They both have Butler experience and Stevens has a better record there than Matta had. Matta has brought wining basketball to a "football school," but that football school has the second biggest sports budget in college; is part of a premier conference with premier competition; and gets steady television exposure. Getting top talent to Columbus is relatively easy. Stevens was in a league with no exposure, weak competition, a school without great amenities; has never had a one-and-done, has had few players who were heavily recruited coming out of high school - and has molded teams of unknowns into two national championship game participants, one that had the last shot to win.

I also suggested that Florida might have football and basketball coaches at least as good as OSU's and was told that Matta's record is better than Billy Donovan's. True, but Donovan has two rings. One of them obtained in a head-to-head battle against Matta. Is it enough for Buckeye fans that our teams win 77% of our games? Is it enough that we win the B1G? Do those outweigh early exits in the NCAA? It's a matter of taste.

Why we lose early can be a difficult question to answer definitively but one possibility is that Matta simply is not flexible. He has a preferred style of offense and sticks with it - and with the players implementing it - however well prepared for it the opponent is, however poorly a player is doing. Jim Boeheim gives up his beloved zone defense more often than Matta moves away from his beloved offense. Sports Illustrated columnist Seth Davis often lets his ego get in the way of his objectivity but I think his recent assessment of OSU is spot on: "This is as good a perimeter defensive team as you will find, but Ohio State's lack of offensive versatility is putting too much pressure on its D." He thinks the wheels are about to come off.

This is not about whether Matta was a good hire - he was. This is not about whether Matta is a good coach - he is. This is certainly not a call for his firing (I'm still trying to understand the mindset of Chicago Bears ownership who fired a coach that got them 10 wins. What proven winner is on the market? That to me looks like a team ready to implode completely.) This is about whether he is maximizing potential, whether OSU basketball under Matta is as good as it can be. I think Matta is a good coach, a very good coach. But I don't think he has earned a right to be above criticism. I'd gladly give up a few B1G wins for an NC ring or two. I'd even settle for playing in two NC games in five years. I'd like to see hustling role players learning teamwork. I'd like to see more Turners, who come to Columbus rough and leave as professionals. Those to me are how to measure elite coaches. And wanting such things does not mean I am never and will never be satisfied - they mean that for all Matta's successes I think he is falling short of what an OSU coach can accomplish. And I'd like to see those things accomplished.

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