Coaches at every big basketball school must deal with their fair share of critics. Some of them are perceived to have a sort of signature flaw, a weakness that defines the limits of their ability to succeed at the game's highest level. Baseless or not, these become the fallback knocks on a coach or program perpetuated by talking heads and internet commenters.
You may be familiar with a few of these takes: Jim Boeheim's defense is stale and unadaptable. John Calipari can't win without cheating. Rick Barnes can't deal with attitude issues, etc. etc. etc.
The merit of these claims is not for us to tackle here. What we can investigate, however, is one of the major knocks against Buckeye coach Thad Matta: that he is regularly gifted with raw talent but is unable to develop that talent into something better.
LGHL dug into the numbers to try to get a better idea of this claim's merit. We'll save the conclusion for the end, but first, a few points about the parameters of this investigation:
- Size matters. We want as much data per player as possible in order to judge Matta's impact on their development, so in order to be used they needed to have played more than two seasons under Matta at Ohio State. This rules out the likes of Jared Sullinger, Greg Oden, and Mike Conley, Jr.
- High ceilings only. We want to know what Matta's impact on the everyday, high-usage guys has been. His positive or negative influence on Aaron Craft's game tells us a lot more than the same influence on, say, Mark Titus'.
- Brevity is the soul of wit. It can also be useful in sportswriting. We will limit our scope to 4 current and 4 former Matta players, who came into the program with high potential and met the above criteria: Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross, William Buford, David Lighty, Evan Turner, and Deshaun Thomas. (Just for fun, we also looked at everyone from PJ Hill to Dallas Lauderdale, but their numbers largely told the same story as the 8 profiled players.)
Let's begin. All data can be found at sports-reference.com.
Inside the Numbers
True Shooting Percentage (TS%) and Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%)
True Shooting Percentage measures a player's shooting ability based on two-point shots, three-point shots, and free throws. It is generally a higher value than Effective Field Goal Percentage, a statistic which considers the fact that a three-pointer is worth more than a two-pointer. For reference, Marcus Smart has a .580 TS% and .537 eFG% this season, while Jabari Parker has posted a .632 TS% and .602 eFG%. (While these statistics naturally favor big men playing inside, Parker has also managed a 47% three-point clip this year.)
Win Shares per 40 Minutes (WS/40)
Usage Rate (USG%):
Player Efficiency Rating (PER)
Total Rebound Percentage (TRB%), Total Assist Percentage (AST%)
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Current Player Values
Aaron Craft, PG, 2010-Present
Amir Williams, C, 2011-Present
LaQuinton Ross, F, 2011-Present
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
Former Player Values
Deshaun Thomas, F, 2010-11 to 2012-13
William Buford, G, 2008-09 to 2011-12
Evan Turner, G, 2007-08 to 2009-10
David Lighty, Guard/Forward, 2006-07 to 2010-11
Non-Ohio State Players
Adreian Payne, Michigan State, Center (Freshman Stats/Senior Stats):
Yikes. Those are some seriously outrageous improvements across the board. Let's check another Izzo guy to see if Thad might be outmatched within his conference.
Keith Appling, Michigan State, Guard (Freshman Stats/Senior Stats):
Appling seems to have made some pretty big leaps in his overall contributions to the team and his effectiveness when on the floor, though his shooting numbers have dipped slightly since his freshman year. Despite the heavy increases in usage for both Payne and Appling, they both also made huge gains in the efficiency department. It might be safe to give Izzo the nod over Matta in this department, if we're forgiving of a small sample size. How about comparing Matta's guys with the most recent national champs, Rick Pitino's Louisville squad?
Russ Smith, Louisville, Guard (Freshman Stats/Senior Stats):
Russ Smith is a bit of an outlier in the sense that he was a 2-star recruit who did not come into college ready to contribute at the highest level. Pitino's roller coaster guard has come a long way since. So far in his senior season, Smith is effectively averaging almost a quarter of a win every time he plays. That smashes his freshman season, and outdoes every OSU player in our sample except Evan Turner in his Wooden Award-winning season. We'd hate to project based on just one Pitino guy, so let's go for two:
Wayne Blackshear, Louisville, Guard-Forward (Freshman Stats/Junior Stats):
Gulp. Those are scary-good numbers this season, and monstrous improvements since his freshman campaign.
So what do we take away from all of this? How do we find sense amidst all of this statistical noise?
We are obviously working with a very small sample size here, but those players featured have been chiefly responsible for Ohio State's success in the last 5 or 6 seasons (minus those ineligible based on our parameters). The statistical measures used don't give a full picture of a player's development or a coach's role in that, but they broadly cover some of the benchmarks that are most helpful to look at when evaluating progress.
It is probably fair to say, from a statistical standpoint, that Thad Matta isn't the greatest coach in the NCAA at developing the raw talent given to him. Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo both have at least two current players outpacing any of Ohio State's in their development, though there's no shame in finishing behind either of those men in anything. And all these numbers don't speak to the incredible recent run of success (this year...pending) that the Buckeyes have had. Matta has yet to notch a title to his belt, but Ohio State has been a scary team to face come March for years now.
An interesting sidebar is that a number of these players actually put up their best numbers in their second seasons under Thad Matta. Aaron Craft put up career highs in every category we have measured here in his sophomore season, with a line of 18.3 (PER)/ .185 (WS/40)/ .592; .550 (TS%; eFG%). Deshaun Thomas peaked in shooting and win shares per 40 minutes his second year, and the same holds true for William Buford. Shannon Scott's career-best PER (19.4) came in his sophomore season, and his WS/40 peaked then as well.
There is never a single answer to a question with such broad implications, but we have done our best to reign in some of the available data and paint a better picture of where Coach Matta stands in the area of player development. There have been some clear disappointments, like William Buford. Based on all available data, and the so-called eye test, Matta missed on that one. But there have also been a number of successes: players hardly stick around if they're done getting better and learning from their coaches, and Evan Turner was a better player in his third season than his first in every measurable way. Matta may not be the best in the business, but he hasn't exactly been a slouch.
Thanks for sticking it out this far, folks. Agree? Disagree? Have some numbers or insight of your own to contribute? Let us know in the comment section!
Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) contributed (heavily) to this report.