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Who had a better first three years, Thad Matta or Chris Holtmann?

Holtmann made Ohio State basketball relevant again immediately upon arrival. But how do his first three seasons stack up to the GOAT?

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State vs UCLA Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Holtmann now has three seasons under his belt as the head coach of the Ohio State men’s basketball program. By all accounts, his first three years have been successful, if not a little surprising, too.

While the cupboard was by no means bare when he arrived, (Jae’Sean Tate, Kaleb Wesson, Keita Bates-Diop, etc.), the Buckeyes had not made the NCAA Tournament in two seasons, and the general outlook of the program was trending downward.

Having been hired mid-summer, Holtmann was not given much time to recruit a class of incoming freshman. Still, he was able to hang on to Wesson, persuade Kyle Young to follow him to Ohio State after originally committing to play for him at Butler, and get a commitment from Musa Jallow, who also reclassified to 2017 so he could play for the Buckeyes that fall.

Since Holtmann took over, Ohio State has not missed an NCAA Tournament. At the same time, they’ve been unable to win more than one game in either of those tournament appearances. Recruiting has been hot, but the program has also seen six players transfer out of the program for one reason or another.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Today, we take a look at Chris Holtmann’s body of work from his first three seasons and compare it to his predecessor, Thad Matta. While Matta is undoubtedly the greatest coach in Ohio State history and one of the best in Big Ten history, his first season (2004-2005) wasn’t stellar, and the Buckeyes were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to a self-imposed one-year ban. This self-imposed ban stemmed from the actions of Matta’s predecessor, Jim O’Brien, who paid a recruit $6,000 in 1999 to attend Ohio State (the recruit did not end up playing in a single game for Ohio State).

We’ll look at each of the coaches’ records, including their record in-conference and in the tournament. We’ll also look take a look at recruiting, because pulling in high quality players is the fastest way to take a good program and make it great, or a great program and make it elite.


Records

Overall record in first three seasons:

Thad Matta (2004-2007): 81-22

Chris Holtmann (2017-2020): 66-34

Tournament record in first three seasons:

Thad Matta: 6-2

Chris Holtmann: 2-2

Conference record in first three seasons:

Thad Matta: 35-13

Chris Holtmann: 34-24

Record against Michigan in first three seasons (because why not):

Thad Matta: 6-0

Chris Holtmann: 3-2

Okay, so it isn’t quite as close as we may have thought. A big part of the disparity between the two overall records is because of the 2006-2007 season, when Matta’s Buckeyes went 35-4 (.897) and lost in the National Championship game to Florida. Their 35 wins set a program record that still stands today.

But even if we ignore that phenomenal year, even Matta’s second season (2005-2006) was better than any of Holtmann’s first three years. The 2005 team went 26-6, won the Big Ten, and won one game in the NCAA tournament. While he has without question exceeded expectations, Holtmann’s best season to date was his first, when he and the Buckeyes went 25-9.

Both coaches experienced a season where they were left out of the NCAA tournament for reasons beyond their control. As previously stated, Matta’s 2004 team was unable to participate due to a self-imposed one-year ban. Holtmann’s 2019 Buckeyes were left out because COVID-19 cancelled the tournament altogether. With those seasons removed, Matta still holds a four-game edge over Holtmann in tournament victories, 6-2. Five of those wins came during the 2007 tournament, when Greg Oden devoured everything in his path on the way to the National Championship game.


Recruiting

Number of five-star commits in first three seasons:

Thad Matta: 3

Chris Holtmann: 0

Number of four-star commits in first three seasons:

Thad Matta: 5

Chris Holtmann: 7

Average class ranking (national):

Thad Matta: 21

Chris Holtmann: 22

If you remove the historic 2006 recruiting class where Thad Matta somehow pulled Greg Oden, Daequan Cook, and Mike Conley all in, then Chris Holtmann’s recruiting has actually been superior to Matta’s, at least in the first three seasons.

Unfortunately, we can’t do that.

That 2006 class could be credited with returning Ohio State basketball to national prominence all by itself. Oden, Cook, and Conley, who played on the same AAU team in high school, more or less came as a packaged deal. All three were in top-30 players in the 2006 class, headlined by Oden, the No. 1 player in the class. Also in that group and often forgotten is David Lighty, who was the 33rd-ranked player in the 2006 class and went on to set the Ohio State record for total games played.

Matta’s first two recruiting classes did not even land in the top 40 nationally. Leftover talent from the O’Brien era, like Terence Dials and J.J. Sullinger, was great to step into (much like Holtmann having Bates-Diop on the roster in his first season), but Matta did not strike gold with recruiting until that 2006 class put the Buckeyes back on the map. Matta continued to recruit at a high level after this, but Ohio State will never have a freshman class like that again.

While it’s probably too soon to tell, Holtmann appears to have what it takes to become an even better recruiter than Matta was. Each of Holtmann’s first three recruiting classes have included at least two four-star recruits. Of those three classes, D.J. Carton was the highest-ranked recruit at No. 34 nationally, but he also pulled in two other top-50 recruits in that same class in E.J. Liddell and Alonzo Gaffney. Holtmann’s 2021 class may be his best so far (currently ranked No. 4 nationally), but because we are focusing on just the first three seasons, we won’t get into that.

The one thing that gives many Ohio State fans pause about Holtmann’s recruiting is the rate at which players are transferring out of the program. Bringing in talent is crucial, but does it even matter if they’re turning around and leaving less than a year later?

Here is a list of all the players who have left the program since Chris Holtmann took over in 2017. Not all players listed here were originally his recruits.

  • D.J. Funderburk
  • Micah Potter
  • Luther Muhammad
  • Jaedon LeDee
  • D.J. Carton
  • Alonzo Gaffney

Funderburk had some off-court and disciplinary troubles. Potter saw the writing on the wall with Wesson, who was a year younger than him, already having passed him on the depth chart. LeDee and Gaffney saw little playing time as freshmen, which may have influenced their decisions. Muhammad was a head-scratcher because he started 56 games in two seasons, therefore playing time could not have been the issue. Carton took a leave of absence to focus on mental health issues during his lone season and later chose to transfer, but months later also told his followers on Instagram that he was “forced out.” He did not specify who forced him out, allegedly.

The reasons are neither here nor there. While Holtmann’s recruiting has been impressive and consistent, it is not sustainable for half of the players who enter the program to also walk out shortly thereafter. Hopefully the trend does not continue, and these were unique cases. It is certainly something to keep an eye on, though.


Ruling

Record: Major edge to Matta

Recruiting: Slight edge to Holtmann

Overall: Edge Matta

Photo courtesy of Associated Press

There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it, Thad Matta was dominant basically his entire time at Ohio State, and it started from day one. Before breaking down the numbers, I thought the two would be much closer during the span of their first three years in Columbus, respectively.

But it isn’t even close.

Thad Matta made it to a National Championship game within three years and put together a recruiting class that wasn’t just the best in Ohio State history, but one of the greatest of all-time. He set a program record for wins in a single season, and won nearly 75% of his conference games in those first three years.

What makes this even more impressive is that right now I feel great about where Ohio State’s basketball program is. Chris Holtmann and his staff have done a fantastic job so far, and I hope they call Columbus home for many years to come. Holtmann took a stagnant program and made them relevant. He took a program that so many people were calling a sleeping giant and woke it up. AND he beat North Carolina by 25 in Chapel Hill.

With all that considered, Matta was still head and shoulders above Holtmann during his first three seasons. That’s why Thad Matta’s name hangs in the rafters at the Schottenstein Center. And that is why when you talk about the greatest coaches in Big Ten history, you have no choice but to put Thad up there with the greats.