Since 1999, Thad Matta has been one of the top head coaches in the country – starting when he took Barry Collier's job at Butler University, and then Skip Prosser's job at Xavier University. He made the NCAA tournament four straight seasons with Butler and Xavier from 1999-2003, and along the way coached three straight 26-win Xavier teams.
At Butler and Xavier, he had less talented players than he has had in his time at Ohio State, although one could argue that his Xavier teams were plenty good, featuring NBA first-rounder David West and fan favorites Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers. His best coaching job of all-time is arguably the 2003-2004 Xavier Musketeers, who started 10-9 in a down Atlantic 10, but rebounded in the second half of the season, eventually losing to Duke in the Elite Eight. But since Matta has been at Ohio State, he has all but controlled the conference, finishing first in five of eight seasons.
This year's team, while it currently sits at 17-6 and has not met the lofty expectations set for it by past teams, may be one of the better jobs he's done while he's been here at Ohio State. When Matta arrived in Columbus, he took over a program that was ineligible for postseason play due to Jim O'Brien's transgressions. The cupboard was relatively bare, with Jamar Butler only a redshirt freshman and Terrence Dials a year away from morphing into the Big Ten Player of the Year after Matta took over. All that's needed to be said about Matta's first team is that Tony Stockman was the second-leading scorer. That team finished sixth in the Big Ten conference but ended its Big Ten season with this famous shot.
The next year, in a relatively weak Big Ten, Ohio State would finish first behind the play of Terrence Dials, a solid player who ended up playing professionally in France for years after his stint in Columbus. Then, of course, the "Thad Five" and Mark Titus came along and Ohio State went to the national championship game. Jamar Butler's career ended the following year with an NIT championship. After, Evan Turner played for one team that exited the NCAA tournament ignominiously to Siena in 2007 (arguably Matta's "worst" product) as well a Sweet Sixteen team in 2008 that lost, surprising bettors and pundits across the nation, to Tennessee. Last year's team was a relatively star-studded squad, with William Buford and Jared Sullinger carrying the load, and made it to the Final Four.
All of these coaching jobs are impressive given the circumstances (save 2007) but so far this year, the Buckeyes have had to win games with nominally less talented players than before. This year's recruiting class included a whopping one player, Amedeo Della Valle, and is coming off the aforementioned Final Four appearance. Expectations were high among fans and media before the season, and so far only a handful players have really lived up to them consistently all season long.
At this point in the year, the Buckeyes have only one player that is sure to play in the NBA in Deshaun Thomas, and even then he looks like he's likely out of the lottery picks. It has been said in many circles that Thad Matta is a better recruiter than coach, but to get seventeen wins out of the players he has right now has taken more than recruiting. He has had to adjust his style and place trust in more players. In the past it seemed like Matta was content to let his stars play. This season, much emphasis has been on Matta's ability to lead piecemeal a winning team together, rather than letting it form on its own. While his coaching decisions can still be questioned (why didn't Deshaun Thomas have any touches, let alone shots, in overtime against Michigan???) Matta has gotten significant improvement out of struggling players such as LaQuinton Ross all season long. While we criticize Q for playing under his potential, given where he was at a year ago, it's hard not to appreciate the flashes of brilliance we're getting now.
This is the least talent that Ohio State has had since 2006, and that team won the Big Ten championship. This year, the Big Ten is, for our money, the best conference in the country. Michigan State, Michigan and Indiana all have the talent and depth to win a national championship – especially the latter two teams, while Tom Izzo and Michigan State have been the most consistent team in the nation this season.
For Ohio State to not only keep pace with these teams but grab some wins against them isn't a feat worth sleeping on considering the talent and coaches on the other bench. Iis widely regarded as one of the best coaches ever, while Tom Crean (Final Four with Marquette) and John Beilein (Elite Eight with West Virginia) have shown themselves to be capable of coaching on a national stage in their pasts. Minnesota is another solid, well coached team that can also be called a prospective NCAA tournament threat. And then there's this year's Buckeyes, who have stayed with the most talented teams in a great Big Ten, while overcoming a rather significant talent gap between the teams above them. And Matta deserves much of the credit.
Do you want to criticize Thad Matta for the lack of development of a consistent second scorer? That's a plausible argument. Do you want to complain about the lack of consistency seen from Ohio State's interior players? That's also fair. But If Ohio State can make a run in the Big Ten tournament, win the league, or better yet, find themselves playing the the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, it's going to be harder and harder to deny that Thad Matta may have, under the nation's radar, done one of his best jobs yet.