There's an argument to be made that Thad Matta is the best coach Ohio State's men's basketball program has ever employed. Matta may not have achieved the same high-level success or longevity of Harold Olsen or Fred Taylor, but he's never endured a losing season in Columbus, and he's won at least 20 games in each of his 12 campaigns.
Olsen and Taylor combined for 12 NCAA Tournament appearances in their 40 years on Ohio State's bench -- though it should be noted that the NCAA Tournament was only around for the last seven years of Olsen's 23 years with the Buckeyes -- while Matta has been to March Madness nine times with the Buckeyes. And though Matta has had the benefit of coaching in the NCAA Tournament's expansion era, it was also easier for Olsen and Taylor to advance to Final Fours (the two combined for nine national semifinal appearances) as the NCAA Tournament was an 8-team foray from 1939-50 (Olsen coached at Ohio State from 1922-46), and was between a 22- and 32-team affair when Taylor coached the Buckeyes from 1959-76.
Matta would seem to have many years left to give, and he sounded inspired and excited about the future of his program when Land-Grant Holy Land caught up with him in early April. The former Butler and Xavier coach will not turn 49 until July, and he's seemingly accumulated enough goodwill by transforming Ohio State into a consistent winner -- an achievement that was far from the norm prior to Matta's hiring -- to buy himself some time to get the Buckeyes back on the right path following a few down seasons.
But while Matta is still very much a young man, he hasn't enjoyed the health of one. Complications from back surgery in June 2007 left Matta with drop foot, which will require him to wear a brace for the rest of his life, and he has had to undergo four back surgeries. Matta's range of motion is so limited that he can't remove his own shoes without assistance.
Matta has adjusted to his disability. He still paces the sideline during games, but the hitch in his step is noticeable. During home games, Matta sits in a specially-designed padded chair that evokes memories of the high chair Phil Jackson sat in during his later years as the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
It's not difficult to fathom a scenario in the near future when the Buckeyes' re-made, upperclassmen-heavy core wins the Big Ten and embarks on a deep tournament run. At that point, maybe Matta -- perhaps feeling fulfilled after putting the underwhelming recent past of his program squarely in the rearview -- feels like Ohio State men's basketball is back to where it should be, and retires to devote more time to his family and his health.
An opening at Ohio State would not attract a who's who of elite college basketball coaches, but the job is an attractive one. (Last month, we ranked Ohio State as the Big Ten's fourth-best job.) The Buckeyes have a strong winning history and regularly send players to the NBA; they play in an NBA-sized arena and ply their trade in a state-of-the-art practice facility; and they play in the Big Ten, one of college basketball's premier conferences. It's also one of the largest athletic departments in the country, and would pay accordingly. Ohio State isn't Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina, but it's not too far of a step down.
In the event Matta would step away, here are three realistic candidates who would likely reciprocate Ohio State's interest, as well as two more candidates who would be home-run hires, but are unrealistic fits for the position.
Miller has worked wonders in his five seasons at Dayton, going 115-55 and qualifying for three NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2014. Miller, an assistant to Matta at Ohio State from 2007-09, has succeeded at Dayton by blending Ohio players with national recruits. Kendall Pollard and Scoochie Smith, two of Dayton's star players, both hail from Chicago, an area Ohio State has recruited well (Keita Bates-Diop, Sam Thompson, Evan Turner) in the past.
Per USA Today's coaching salaries database, Miller makes $692,547 per season at Dayton -- by comparison, Matta makes about $3.4 million per year -- but despite his modest salary, Miller has rebuffed advances from major conference programs over the past few seasons. From the outside looking in, it seems as if Miller is waiting for the right job to come along. Ohio State could be that fit.
Jent, a former Buckeye player who coached under Matta from 2011-13, rejoined Ohio State's staff late last month. While Jent has never been a college head coach before, he was briefly the Orlando Magic's interim coach in 2005 and was the head coach of the NBA Development League's Bakersfield Jam this past season.
Jent's tenure as a college coach is limited to his time with Ohio State, though he has been an assistant coach for four different NBA franchises, including the Cleveland Cavaliers. So while Jent doesn't have a ton of recruiting experience, the fact he has was LeBron James' personal shooting coach for four seasons would certainly carry some clout in recruiting circles. After a few years of familiarizing himself with the practices and nuances of the college game, Jent should be ready for a head coaching job.
Prior to landing his first head coaching position in early April with Stony Brook, Boals had been an assistant to Matta since April 2009. Boals, who coordinated Ohio State's solid, often-elite defenses, previously coached as Ohio University (where he also played), Akron, Marshall, Robert Morris, and Charleston (West Virginia).
As Ohio State's former lead recruiter, Boals had a hand in bringing some extremely talented players to Columbus. However, the Buckeyes lost out or misread a few key Ohio prospects in recent years -- Caris LeVert and Vince Edwards didn't have Ohio State offers when they committed to Michigan and Purdue, respectively -- and Ohio State missed out on picking up one or two more players in a stacked Ohio class of 2016 because the staff had scholarships tied up in national recruits in their now-transfer depleted 2015 class. These miscalculations were almost certainly a staff-wide whiff, though.
Obviously, the strength of Boals' resume is his Ohio ties and his defensive acumen. Boals' strong social media presence -- he's accumulated nearly 19,000 Twitter followers despite being a career assistant up until last month -- is evident. In the end, how Boals performs at Stony Brook will go a long way to ascertaining the possibility of a reunion with Ohio State.
Miller, who makes nearly $5 million per season at Arizona, is a former Matta assistant who took over for Matta at Xavier when his boss left for Ohio State. Now at Arizona, Miller has assembled the West Coast's premier college basketball program, winning three Pac-12 championships and reaching three Elite Eights in six campaigns with the Wildcats. Miller has also proven to be an ace recruiter, notching the Pac-12's top recruiting class (as ranked by 247Sports) five times since he took over in Tuscon prior to the 2009-10 season.
Given the high level of success he's enjoying at Arizona, it's difficult to envision Miller leaving for anything short of an NBA head coaching gig.
Had Xavier not found immediate traction in the new Big East, Mack may have been a realistic option. But Mack has continued the success -- and in some cases, topped -- of his head coaching predecessors at Xavier (Skip Prosser, Matta, Miller) by proving the Musketeers belong in a power conference (Xavier went 14-4 in the Big East in 2015-16) and reaching three Sweet 16s in seven seasons.
Per USA Today, Mack makes about $1.1 million per season, but his position became endowed in January 2015 by the largest donation ever made to Xavier's men's basketball, so it's quite likely Mack makes more than $1.1 million per season. Mack has also proven that he can recruit well at Xavier (a private school), bringing in six four-star recruits over his past three classes. The Musketeers play in the sparkling Cintas Center, a 10,250-seat on-campus arena that opened in 2000 and also holds Xavier's practice facilities.
Mack's roots are in the Queen City, too. He grew up in Cincinnati and played his final two seasons of college ball with the Musketeers. Mack's wife, Christi, is from Louisville, which is about a two-hour drive from Cincinnati. If Mack were to leave his very comfortable situation at Xavier, chances are it would be for a job (Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina) where it is easier to reach the Final Four on an annual basis -- Xavier has never been to a Final Four -- and not for Ohio State, which at best would be a lateral move.