As the Ohio State basketball team piled up wins and as Buckeye Nation watched Keita Bates-Diop develop from an often injured, talented wing with promise into the Big Ten Player of the Year, I found myself wondering....'What must Thad Matta be thinking?' Those thoughts have become even more pronounced over the last week. Bombshell reports by Yahoo Sports and a now questionable report from ESPN exposed the seedy underworld of college basketball recruiting. The kind of stuff Matta and his coaching staff stayed away from. He kept Ohio State clean but in the final years of his tenure, struggled to land the difference making recruits.
When Matta was let go in June, Director of Athletics Gene Smith cited losses in recruiting battles as one of the reasons for change. Hmm....Maybe now we know why.
I thought at the time that it was a cruel irony that a lack of recruiting success was singled out as a downfall for Matta. Look at the talent he brought to Ohio State. Guys like Oden, Conley, Turner, Sullinger, Thomas, Diebler, Lighty, etc. Roster talent was never an issue in the Matta era.
Heck, it was just four years ago that Matta, Ohio State's all-time winningest coach, brought Bates-Diop, four-year starter and the heart and soul of these Buckeyes Jae'Sean Tate, and the NBA's overall No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft D'Angelo Russell to Columbus. That class can now be looked upon as remarkable.
But Matta's not here now. This is not to say I didn't understand Gene Smith's move last summer. We all saw what was happening. The program was slipping. Games Thad Matta's Buckeye teams always used to win, they were finding ways to lose. There were clearly on court chemistry issues with the Buckeyes. I understood Smith's decision, though I refused then--and refuse now to subscribe to the belief that Matta suddenly lost his ability to coach. In my mind, he was--and still is a great college basketball coach.
Which brings us to this year. The job Chris Holtmann and his new staff has done is remarkable. To take over this program in June, with a roster--at the time--that had seven scholarship players and lead them to 24 regular season wins and a second place finish in the Big Ten is astounding. He deservedly was named Big Ten Coach Of The Year and is in contention to win the award nationally. The improvement of the team and individual players--especially Bates-Diop and point guard C.J. Jackson, has been striking. But I still do ask myself--would this have happened if Thad were still here?
Last season, before Bates-Diop suffered the stress-fracture that eventually required surgery and ended his season, Matta glowed about how good his lanky junior forward had become. We did see a glimpse of it early in the season with a pair of double-doubles... but then the injury--and the surgery--and a promising team fell flat. That team lost eight games by six points or less and five by one or two points. You think a healthy Bates-Diop could have flipped those results? To his credit, multiple times this year, Holtmann has made sure to credit Matta and his staff for recruiting 'quality players and character guys' like Bates-Diop and Tate.
Don't misunderstand. I truly believe the new voice and new ideas of Holtmann has injected a shot of adrenaline into the program. He's been an elite coach this season and Ohio State is fortunate to have landed him at such an unusual time to be searching for a coach. But I do wonder if a turnaround season for Matta was on the horizon anyway. I do wonder, as I see program after program get linked to potential NCAA violations while Ohio State, at least to this point, remains in the clear, if Matta's recruiting losses had more to do with trying to do things the right way, rather than suddenly losing his ability to attract top level talent.
We'll never know those answers here in Columbus but I do hope, if Thad Matta wants to get back into coaching, that he gets another opportunity. I'd like to see him get a chance to do it again. He succeeded everywhere he went. My guess is, if there's a program out there, looking for a guy to be clean and to win, they'll give Matta a call...and if they are able to convince him to coach, my guess is they won't regret it.