Thad Matta’s Ohio Problem

Ohio State men’s basketball program has hit rock bottom. A program that qualified for nine-consecutive NCAA Tournaments and reached a Final Four will miss the Big Dance for the second-straight season. Wednesday, the embarrasment was magnified with an atrocious conference tournament loss to Rutgers, 66-57.

Last season, the Bucks went 1-1 in the NIT, and it remains to be seen if the team will enjoy any postseason play in 2017. The past two seasons have disappointed Buckeye Nation. A team that once regularly pulled in Ohio’s top talent now sees those players in other Big Ten uniforms. A club that prided itself on leadership and veterans now has players transferring out after a single season. Making the NCAA Tournament requires a level of skill, teamwork, and leadership that should not be taken for granted. It all starts at the top with a gentleman from Hoopestown, Illinois. The whispers may soon grow into a murmur: What should Ohio State do about head coach Thad Matta?

Before we string up a false Thad to burn in effigy, it’s important to note: I adore Thad Matta. He is the winningest head coach in school history and has elevated the program to its highest peaks in fifty years when a gentleman by the name of Fred Taylor manned the helm. Let’s take a quick look at the men who preceded him:

Jim O’Brien: 7 seasons, 2* Big Ten Titles, 1* Big Ten Tournament Title, 4* NCAA Tournament appearances, 2* Round of 32 appearances, 1* Final Four, 1 lawsuit, 92 vacated wins.

Randy Ayers: 7 seasons, 2 Big Ten Titles, 2 NCAA Tournament Appearances, 1 Sweet Sixteen, 1 Elite Eight

Gary Williams: 3 seasons, 1 NCAA Round of 32

Jim O’Brien was the most successful coach in that bunch, and he left the program in disgrace after a unauthorized loan to an oft-injured Serbian shooting guard. Compare that mess to Thad Matta:

Thad Matta: 12 seasons (through 2015-16), 5 Big Ten Titles, 4 Big Ten Tournament Titles, 9 NCAA Tournaments, 2 Round of 64, 2 Round of 32, 2 Sweet Sixteen, 1 Elite Eight, 2 Final Fours, 1 National Runner-Up. 320 wins

That is a staggering list of accolades. Matta elevated the status of Ohio State basketball from “we’re a football school” to “I expect to Dance every year.” Therein lies the problem: When you raise expectations and deliver, it’s great. When you can’t, people get itchy about making changes. In college basketball, it all comes down to recruiting.

Let’s set some expectations. The Buckeye State hosts thirteen Division I basketball programs. To simplify the math, let’s suppose each one offers ten basketball scholarships per year. That means 130 players will get free rides, many of them hailing from Ohio. It is not fair to expect Ohio State to pull in the top ten players from the state and leave the scraps for the rest. However, as the largest university in the state with arguably the highest profile program, it is fair to assume that the school should know which Ohioans are worth offering. If nothing else, the Buckeyes need to keep the major conference talent either in Columbus or far away. Seeing other Big Ten schools make inroads in Ohio is a serious problem.

The easiest way to gauge who has a feel for Ohio’s top talent is to see where Mr. Basketball goes. After arriving in Columbus, Matta established a pattern of regularly acquiring Ohio’s top high schoolers.
• 2007 – Jon Diebler
• 2008 – William Buford
• 2009, 2010 – Jared Sullinger

These players formed a major part of the core for several of Ohio State’s strongest clubs. They grew and matured with the team which culminated with a Final Four berth in 2012. Over the past six years, however, that top talent has by and large sought greener pastures.
• 2011 – Trey Burke (Michigan)
• 2012 – Justin Fritts (Wheeling Jesuit University)
• 2013 – Marc Loving (Ohio State)
• 2014, 2015 – Luke Kennard (Duke)
• 2016 – Xavier Simpson (Michigan)

A few items jump out from that list. Yes, Matta picked up 2013’s Mr. Basketball – Marc Loving. Sadly, Loving’s game never developed as hoped, and he will leave the university with one of the more forgettable four-year tenures in recent program history. It is difficult to begrudge Fritts for going Division II or Kennard for going to Duke. After all, they’re Duke. What concerns me is Michigan poaching Ohio’s top talent twice in the past six years. That simply cannot continue. In addition, the players reporting to Columbus do not thrill like they used to.

On Monday, the Big Ten released the annual postseason honors list. You won’t find any Buckeyes on the First-Team All-Big Ten list. Or Second-Team. Or Third. In fact, between the coaches and media only Jae’Sean Tate and Trevor Thompson received an honorable mention. Also worth noting, C.J. Jackson received a Sportsmanship Award which is a positive. Wisconsin senior Nigel Hayes, a Toledo native, was named to the Third Team which comes on the heels of his First Team appearance last season. Hayes is emblematic of the Buckeyes’ recruiting woes – talented Ohio players whom Ohio State overlooks end up playing their college ball elsewhere in the Big Ten and making Buckeye fans and coaches wonder “What if?”

On the other hand, what if this fallow period portends great things to come? Mitigating factors abound in 2016-17. Keita Bates-Diop played only nine games before an injury ended his season. He will receive a medical redshirt and is expected to return next season. Jae’Sean Tate and Trevor Thompson will return and play as seniors. After redshirting this season, Lakewood’s Derek Funderburk will finally see action next year. The incoming class offers promise as well. Center Kaleb Wesson is a four-star recruit from Westerville. Three-star point guard Braxton Beverly will join him from Hazard, Kentucky. Looking further down the road, four-star shooting guard Dane Goodwin and four-star small forward Darius Bazley will join the Buckeyes in 2018-19. They hail from Columbus and Cincinnati, respectively. Is that the injection of local talent the Bucks need?

While Ohio State would do well to mine the talent from in-state, it would be foolish to pretend that the answers only come from within state lines. Greg Oden came from Indianapolis. Evan Turner from Chicago. D’Angelo Russell from Louisville. Matta’s responsibility is to find and sign the best young players, regardless of where they live. When it comes to Ohio State’s significant profile, however, there is an expectation that the best players in state will at least have the Buckeyes on their short list. That’s where Matta and his staff can be held accountable. Even if they cannot secure every native five star player, OSU should at least be considered.

Even after last season’s disappointing NIT exit, Athletic Director Gene Smith went on record to voice his support of Matta and the team. Smith doubled down on Wednesday morning (before the loss) in a statement saying, “While we are not currently where we aspire to be with our performance on the court, Thad understands better than anyone that component has to improve…I am confident in his leadership to return the program to the winning ways that we have all enjoyed during his 13 year tenure.” Thad’s success and the long shadow he casts earned him that confidence. A year away from the dance is disappointing, but not devastating. Two can be concerning, but likely will not lead to a firing. Three years? Even Thad Matta may not be immune to criticism if the 2017-18 Buckeyes fail to impress. The 2016-17 season left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Regardless of any postseason invitations the best thing for the school may be just to turn the page to next season and see what Thad Matta can do. For his sake, let’s hope the new freshmen grow up in a hurry.