When Thad Matta was named the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team in 2004, Columbus became a basketball town and Ohio State became a basketball school- just for that day. While basketball has been the second fiddle most days since,1 Matta did his best to make the basketball Buckeyes relevant, even it was for just a few short months during every college basketball season.
In his second offseason with the Bucks, he brought in one of the best recruiting classes to ever step foot in Columbus, adding three of the Top 21 players in the country: No. 1 Greg Oden, No. 13 Daequan Cook, and No. 21 Mike Conley. In his third season, he led Ohio State to the National Championship Game, where they lost to Florida. Led by those three recruits, Matta was building something special at a school that many didn’t think was a legitimate basketball school.
The 49-year-old has built up quite the resumé during his time in Columbus, one that includes great basketball. In nine of his first 11 seasons in Columbus, Matta led the Buckeyes to the NCAA Tournament, including a pair of trips to the Final Four, five Big Ten regular season titles, and four Big Ten tournament titles. With a 337-123 record in his 13 years at Ohio State, he’s the winningest coach in program history.
Those great seasons seem like a century ago, not just a few years ago. Over the last two years, Matta’s Buckeyes have deteriorated. In the 2015-16 season, their season concluded with a loss to Florida in the second round of the NIT. In recent memory, losing out on a NCAA Tournament bid was disappointing; losing in the second round of the NIT was almost inexcusable. But, if it was just a bad year for the Bucks, then that’s alright, as long as Matta’s squad turned it around.
Then, the offseason happened. After a disappointing season, four of the five players in the 2015 recruiting class, one that was ranked fifth-best in the country, left the team and transferred to another school. The season was one thing, but losing four players, all of whom were just concluding their freshmen seasons, was devastating for the program.
The 2016-17 season was by far the worst in the Matta era, and the worst for the program since the 2002-03 season. After going 17-15, including a losing record in the conference and losing to a miserable Rutgers team in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, Ohio State didn’t even get an invite to the NIT. To put a little icing on the cake, starting guard JaQuan Lyle left the team on April 11, according to Eleven Warriors. It was something that was a surprise to almost everyone around the program. Add in the fact that their best big man, Trevor Thompson declared for the NBA Draft, and the news just keeps getting worse.
Since the class that included Jared Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas, Jordan Sibert, Aaron Craft, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. in 2010, the recruiting classes seem to have been less than ideal. Even those that were somewhat good on paper have turned out poor, while Ohio State has seen talent leave the state and join another school. Some have even left the Columbus area for another Big Ten school.
After two underachieving seasons, the Buckeyes have no had two dismal offseasons. The head coach is on the hot seat, with the seat seeming to get hotter by the day, and many think that it’s time for the Buckeyes to move on from arguably the best coach in program history.2
Matta will get one more year to redeem himself. If things don’t work out, Ohio State will have missed out on the potential get of Dayton’s Archie Miller, who many believed would be Matta’s successor as the Indiana Hoosiers recently snatched up Miller.
Heading into the upcoming season, the Buckeyes will have just nine scholarship players; seven from last season and two new players from the class of 2017. Although Kaleb Wesson will join the Buckeyes as one of the best big men in the class, he can only add so much.
The 2017-18 season seems to be a do or die one for Matta. Unless the team improves dramatically even with the loss of talent from last season, Ohio State may be in search of a new head coach in 2018. Matta is the reason why the basketball program has such high standards, but those standards could be the reason his departure happens sooner rather than later. Former players may love him, he may be a great person and good coach, but his record is what is most noticeable. And, that record has been less than ideal the past two years.
But, never count out Matta. With his back against the wall, he may just work a miracle.