It's easy to forget if you're a relatively new Ohio State basketball fan, but the program does not have the long, storied history, or the institutional advantages that their football program has. Not only was Ohio State basketball not competing for league titles or deep March runs within relatively recent memory, they actually straight up sucked.
Ohio State was 14-17 the year before Matta was hired, and opened the season with back-to-back losses against San Fransisco and San Diego State. They were bounced in the first round of the NIT the year before by Georgia Tech, after an uninspiring regular season effort. Before Matta, Ohio State advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament just once in 12 years, the surprise Final Four season in 1998-1999, that the NCAA has since tried to banish from our memories.
This was not an uncommon dark run for Ohio State basketball. Outside of a glorious stretch under Fred Taylor from 1959 to 1964, Ohio State's national relevance came in fits and spurts, interspersed with bouts of mediocrity, and even being outright bad. The Buckeyes won only seven games in 1997-1998, and only six in 1994-1995. Not only was Ohio State not a "basketball school", a place that an elite recruit would consider, at times, they weren't even an average one.
Thad Matta has changed this. And he hasn't gotten enough credit for it.
Ohio State wasn't eligible to make the NCAAs for Matta's first year on the job, and after a 20-12 campaign, they would have been squarely on the bubble even if they were allowed to play, but the Buckeyes made that season count and announced that they were going to be a national force, thanks to Matt Sylvester's three that knocked off No. 1 ranked Illinois in their last regular season game.
Ohio State has been good ever since. That's not a figurative statement, Matta has won at least 20 games in every single season he's had at Ohio State. The Buckeyes have made the NCAAs every season but one, a year where they won the NIT. They have made the Sweet 16 or better five times (including four in a row), won a tournament game six times, and credibly could have won a national title three different times.
This season, Ohio State will make their seventh consecutive NCAA tournament. Prior to Matta, the previous Ohio State record was four in a row. They won the Big Ten regular season title five times, won the Big Ten tournament four times (and have made the title game an astounding seven times). What's even more impressive is that this run isn't like football, where the Buckeyes have enormous institutional advantages and a mismatch in the coaching department. Matta has had to beat some of the best coaches in all of college basketball, and on a regular basis.
Matta has been recognized during this run, earning the Big Ten coach of the year award three times. But his players have wracked up the accolades as well. During the Matta era, he's had two Big Ten Players of the Year (2006, 2010), a Big Ten first teamer every season since 2006, four Big Ten freshman of the year, and three Big Ten defensive players of the year and sixth man of the year. Ohio State has been honored with six All-Americans, and has had seven first round NBA Draft picks, with an eighth on the way this season.
You don't get that many NBA first rounders without dramatically improving the quality of recruits, and that's been perhaps the biggest change in the Matta era. The Buckeyes are about to sign their second consecutive Top 10 recruiting class, and seventh since 2006. They signed three in a row from 2006-2008, and have been near the top of the charts every single season they had enough scholarships to give. Like with every program, not every single one of those highly touted prospects worked out, but given where the program was before Matta, it's impossible to argue that the upgrade hasn't been significant and dramatic. The Buckeyes are regularly getting enough talent to compete for Big Ten championships and high NCAA seeds.
This is a team that hasn't enjoyed true, consistent success for fifty years, and over the last decade, they've succeeded by virtually every metric and won almost every award there is. This is a turnaround dramatic enough to warrant a statue being built some day. And yet, some fans still fixate on the few things Matta hasn't done.
The Buckeyes were bounced in the first round last season, and are unlikely to make the Sweet 16 this year. They haven't made a Final Four since 2011-2012. They don't "recruit Ohio" well enough. The team has been disjointed and occasionally difficult to watch over the last few seasons, and of course, despite coming close a few times, they've never won a national championship.
Just typing that paragraph makes me feel stupid, but I hear this on talk radio, I see it on Twitter and in our comment sections, and I've heard fans say this. If anything, the loud, but hopefully small minority of Ohio State fans who are unsatisfied with the Matta era is perhaps Thad's biggest accomplishment at Ohio State. The constant success of the Buckeyes has spoiled a fanbase, helped them forget years of irrelevance, and made them think that they're Duke or Kentucky, or should have similar expectations. More than just beating Michigan and Wisconsin, Matta has beaten years of apathy.
Thad Mattas don't grow on trees. There is a major reason why his assistants have been so highly sought after for head coaching jobs of their own. They're hard to find, and Buckeye fans should be thankful and appreciative that they have one, one who has ushered in a new golden era of Buckeye basketball, set the program on a cycle for long term success, and elevated the profile and talent level of Ohio State. He isn't perfect, and this team isn't perfect, but those shouldn't get in the way of appreciating what they have.
Thad Matta is now the winningest coach in Ohio State history. And hopefully, he's got plenty more wins to come.