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Coaching candidate spotlight: Thad Matta

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Could the Big Ten see the return of one of its greatest spoonerisms – Mad Thatta?

Ohio State v Indiana

This is the latest installment in Crimson Quarry’s Coaching Candidate Spotlight series, where we’ll break down names that Indiana could consider to replace Archie Miller. You can find other installments as well as the rest of our coaching search coverage here.

Let’s say this right off the bat: Thad Matta is either one of, if not the, rumored shadow figures who’s potentially tapped to be the savior of Indiana basketball, as many conversations this week have alluded to, or he’s some combination of not at all interested or in no way involved in the search.

It feels like there’s no in-between and that it’s more likely the latter than the former, right?

But nonetheless, he’s not an active head coach, he does (did?) live in Indianapolis and he largely dominated the Big Ten for just shy of a decade, often with some elite high school players from Indiana. That’s what could potentially put him on Indiana AD Scott Dolson’s short list.

However, Matta experienced health issues at the end of his Ohio State tenure, which he discussed publicly, so even though he’s just 53 (for reference, that’s younger than Tom Crean, just three years older than Scott Drew and only five years older than Chris Beard), Matta’s personal health and well-being would presumably be on the forefront of any potential decision to return to coaching, regardless of the school.

The resume

Record: 439-154 (.740)
NCAA tournament appearances: 13 in 17 seasons as a DI head coach
NCAA tournament record: 24-13
Regular season conference championships: 8
Conference tournament championships: 7

If you were asked who was the best Big Ten men’s basketball coach during the 2000s, you’d probably jump right to Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, then the more you thought about it, you might consider Michigan’s John Beilein, too.

Thad Matta, either due to his four seasons away from coaching or the nature of his exit or whatever, might lead to him being lost in that discussion or being ranked lower than he probably should.

But from the 2006 season through 2013, Ohio State’s star burned as bright as any in the conference:

  • Seven NCAA tournament appearances in eight years
  • An NIT championship in the one year it missed the NCAA tournament
  • Six NCAA tournament appearances as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed
  • Two Final Four appearances, including a national runner-up finish in 2007
  • An Elite Eight finish and two Sweet 16s
  • Five Big Ten regular season titles
  • Four Big Ten conference tournament titles, including three in a four-year span

That, more or less, is probably what Indiana fans dream of for the tenure of the program’s next head coach. Put the lack of a national title to the side, when Matta had Ohio State rolling, the Buckeyes not only had a chance to win the Big Ten’s regular season and tournament (if not both) every year, but they almost annually earned a tournament seed that would give them the chance to make a deep tournament run.

They often capitalized on that opportunity.

If you take enough swings at the piñata, eventually you’re bound to get some candy.

Advanced metrics

Whatever you think of Matta’s tenure Ohio State, even if you acknowledge how great his best teams were, there’s a chance that the Buckeyes were even better than you remember. Even dating back to his tenures at Butler and Xavier, where he started his career with four consecutive top-25 teams, per kenpom.com, Matta’s squads almost always played really good offense and really good defense – the last two years at Ohio State aside.

With the exception of Indiana’s 2013 season, the Hoosiers haven’t had that since Kelvin Sampson’s tenure.

kenpom.com

Matta’s teams historically took great care of the ball (he had seven teams ranked inside the top 25 nationally in turnover percentage), they were often elite 2-point shooting teams and his 2011 team led the country in 3-point percentage at 42.3 percent.

Matta was arguably ahead of the curve in embracing the three (and then became less 3-point-inclined over the course of his tenure), as his 2006 team took 40 percent of its attempts from three, when the national average was just 33 percent. Eight of his first 10 teams took at least 35 percent of their shots from three, and this was in the aughts.

What’s remarkable, too, is how consistently Matta’s teams either led the country, or finished in the top 10, in defensive free throw rate. They finished first in 2003, 2008 and 2011, and second in 2006 and 2007. Ohio State played great defense, but not in a foul-heavy system that sent opponents to the free throw line.

Recruiting

Ironically, one of the last memories of Matta on the recruiting trail is both one of his best recruiting classes he’s ever assembled and an overall whiff in terms of the production of that group. He landed the No. 5 recruiting class nationally in 2015, featuring five 4-stars, four of whom were ranked in the top 100 and three of whom were in the top 60.

Only one, JaQuan Lyle (who some IU fans will remember) returned for his sophomore season at Ohio State, and then Lyle was gone after that season.

But Matta’s 2014 class featured D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop (who was the Big Ten Player of the Year in Chris Holtmann’s first season) and Jae’Sean Tate, who remarkably is averaging 10 points per game this season as a usual starter for the Houston Rockets, despite being an undersized forward at 6-4.

Overall, Matta performed very well on the recruiting trail, often landing some of the best players in Indiana, such as Greg Oden (No. 1 in 2006), Mike Conley (No. 22 in 2006), Deshaun Thomas (No. 19 nationally in 2010)

  • 2016: No. 42
  • 2015: No. 5
  • 2014: No. 6
  • 2013: No. 39
  • 2012: No. 100
  • 2011: No. 6
  • 2010: No. 3
  • 2009: N/A
  • 2008: No. 5
  • 2007: No. 5
  • 2006: No. 2

Parting thoughts

If you think of Indiana’s coaching search almost in an Oregon Trail, adventure-story game kind of way, there’s a potential outcome, following a series of yes or no questions or A, B and C options, that leads to a scenario in which both Indiana is interested in Matta and in which Matta is interested in Indiana.

He’s not currently coaching, which means he doesn’t have a buyout, Indiana wouldn’t have to work backchannels in the same way it probably would for a sitting head coach, and the timeline for a potential hire would be more flexible. He’s also won at an extremely high level in the Big Ten, where Indiana has been somewhere between the seventh and ninth-best program, give or take, over the last 10, 15, 20 years.

However, Matta’s health concerns were an increasingly prominent storyline during the end of his Ohio State tenure, so for the sake of his own health and happiness, he may never want to coach again, especially in a pressure-packed job like Indiana. Who knows.

Somehow, Matta’s overall career resume might be understated and perhaps his candidate profile is ultimately overstated. Given how quietly Dolson appears to be running the search, we may never know who was considered for the job, and how seriously, and that’s probably a good thing for everyone’s sake, as much as the void in a silent search is filled with rampant and uninformed speculation.

But there’s an available head coach in Indiana’s own backyard who has controlled the Big Ten playground, where Indiana has all too often been relegated to sitting in the corner on the seesaw by itself. For that, Matta would seem to warrant, at the very least, the quietest and most informal of feelers from Indiana’s brass.