On June 8, 2004, The Ohio State University gave men’s basketball coach Jim O’Brien a letter informing him of his immediate termination. At the time, this seemed like an unfathomable dark period in Ohio State’s basketball history.
After all, Jim O’Brien had overseen what many felt was an overwhelmingly successful period in the school’s up and down history. After going 8-22 (1-15 in the Big Ten) his first season in Columbus, O’Brien helped turn the program around immediately. He brought in Scoonie Penn to join Michael Redd and Ken Johnson on a team that went 27-9 and ultimately made a trip to the NCAA Final Four.
In the 21 years before O’Brien’s arrival, the University went through a more or less mediocre period of time. The Buckeyes made the NCAA tournament 8 times and only won the Big Ten twice in that period. It seemed like after the success of coaches like Harold Olsen and Fred Taylor, that the best OSU could hope for was the occasional NCAA appearance, with the Big Ten Championship as the real prize.
With O’Brien, though, things felt a little better. For a while, at least. After that tough transition year, O’Brien’s team went of a 4 year run that saw 4 straight NCAA appearances, 2 Big Ten titles, one Big Ten Tournament Championship, and one Final Four appearance. Despite two consecutive down seasons after that stretch, plenty of fans still felt that O’Brien had the program at about the best you could hope for from a basketball program stuck in a football school. So when O’Brien was fired, there was some unrest as to what would happen to the program.
All of that changed on July 7, 2004 when Thad Matta came walking through the door. Despite huge success at Butler and Xavier, Matta was still a bit of an unknown. There wasn’t much fanfare when Matta was hired, and his introductory press conference was somewhat subdued. Nobody knew it at that time (maybe Coach Matta did), but Thad Matta was about to revolutionize Ohio State basketball.
Perhaps it was in part because of the NCAA sanctions still hanging over the program’s head. To his credit, Thad Matta took this job knowing his first team would be ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. At the time, pundits laughed at this sanction. Like OSU would be eligible for the tournament anyway. The previous year the team went 14-16 (6-10 in the Big Ten). The incoming recruits were a pair of 4-star recruits in Jamar Butler and Matt Terwilliger, and an unknown 2 star JuCo transfer named Je’Kel Foster.
New coach, new system, NCAA turmoil. If that team went .500 it would be a miracle. Well, that team did go .500…in the Big Ten. They went a remarkable 20-12 for the season, including a stunning defeat of undefeated, top rated Illinois on a Matt Sylvester three pointer on the last game of the year. There’s a good chance that team would have made the NCAA Tournament after all, and this incredible coaching job by Thad Matta was everyone’s first glimpse of just how good this marriage of Thad Matta’s coaching skills with Ohio State’s resources could be.
Since that season, Thad Matta has turned Ohio State into a college basketball power. The next year OSU went 26-6 (12-4 in the Big Ten) and won their first outright Big Ten regular season title since 1992. Matta followed that up by bring in the beloved “Thad Five”. That recruiting class of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, David Lighty, and Othello Hunter re-shaped Ohio State basketball. The team went 34-4 (15-1 in the Big Ten), won a 2nd consecutive outright Big Ten title, won the Big Ten Tournament, earned a #1 seed in the tournament, and played in the NCAA Championship game before ultimately falling short to Florida.
Thad Matta’s results at Ohio State speak for themselves. He has won at least 20 games every single season he has been a head coach, including all 7 seasons he has been at Ohio State. Only once in the years OSU has been eligible for postseason play under Matta have they missed the NCAA tournament. They won the NIT Tournament that season. With Ohio State, Matta has gone 187-56 (76.95% winning pct), won 4 Big Ten titles, won the Big Ten Tournament three times, and has been to the Sweet Sixteen 3 times.
Perhaps Matta’s best asset is his recruiting ability. A relentless recruiter, Matta came to Ohio State with the attitude that there is no reason the University shouldn’t be offering scholarships to the elite recruits. He started with 5 star recruits Oden, Conley, and Cook, and he landed all three. He didn’t stop there, though. He kept going after 5 star recruits and has brought in Kosta Koufos, BJ Mullens, William Buford, Jared Sullinger, and Deshaun Thomas, all 5 star recruits.
In 2009, Ohio State didn’t have any scholarships to offer, so Matta didn’t bring in any recruits that year, so naturally OSU didn’t have a Top 25 recruiting class that year. Only one other year (2005, Matta’s first class at OSU) has Matta’s class failed to be ranked in the Top 25. In fact, Matta hasn’t even fallen out of the top 10 in any of those years.
Here’s the breakdown of Matta’s recruiting classes, according to Scout.com:
In the 20 years prior to Matta’s arrival, Ohio State had a total of 7 players drafted by NBA teams. In Matta’s 7 years he has had 7 players drafted (Oden, Conley, Cook, Koufos, Mullens, Evan Turner, and Jon Diebler). He has at least two more on his current roster (Jared Sullinger and William Buford) with several others with NBA potential.
With all of this success and the amount of talent brought in to the University, the question is, can Thad chip into the market share of Ohio State fandom and steal away any passion from the football program?
The short answer would appear to be ‘No’. Despite everything Thad Matta has done for the program, and despite the beautiful arena they play in, Ohio State basketball crowds are still relatively weak compared to other NCAA powers. The bottom line is, just as Cleveland will always be a Browns town no matter how much better the Cavaliers and Indians have performed over the last 20 years, Ohio State will always be a football school no matter how well the basketball program does.
But this year does provide the Buckeyes’ hoops team a unique opportunity. With the football program seemingly in a free fall, both in off field compliance and on field execution, and with the NBA lockout threatening to take away the regular season, there’s a chance for Matta’s team to play the hero role. For OSU fans starved for good news and success, the men’s basketball team is returning Jared Sullinger, William Buford, and Aaron Craft. Deshaun Thomas will have an expanded role this year. Incoming freshman center Amir Williams will give Matta the chance to use Sullinger at PF to create matchup problems. This has the potential to be a very good team again, and a team the Buckeye fans can easily get behind.
For NBA fans, the team gives them some basketball to watch. With the potential for a very good season, the Buckeyes have a chance not to take away from the football team’s popularity, but to add to their own fan base. To make more people realize that it’s ok to put the same passion they put into football into this basketball program and into this coach.
As top rated recruits continue to come pouring in, the program is showing no signs of slowing. If anything, it seems like Matta is still just getting started. The program is on an upward trajectory and it has been fun and inspiring to watch. This is a coach who took a chance on Ohio State, a school that took a chance on him. Together, he has allowed the program with unlimited resources to grow into the national power many alumni always thought it could be.
Ohio State will always be a football school, but is it possible Thad Matta is also turning it into a basketball school? Who would have ever thought such a thing would even be possible?