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Photo Credit: Lori Schmidt, 97.1 The Fan
Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith sent out a press release regarding Buckeye men’s basketball just hours before one of the most disappointing losses of their 2016-2017 season.
In it, Smith praised OSU head coach Thad Matta as the winningest coach in program history. “His teams have won five Big Ten titles, and made nine NCAA postseason appearances,” Smith said. “What Thad’s teams at Ohio State have accomplished–both on and off the court–is highly commendable.”
Smith acknowledged the team wasn’t where everyone had hoped it would be. “Thad understands better than anyone that component has to improve,” he added. “I am confident in his leadership to return the program to the winning ways that we have all enjoyed during his 13 year tenure.”
However, that night the Buckeyes lost to Rutgers 66-57, even though Rutgers was the lowest seed in the Big Ten Tournament and even though the Scarlet Knights had only won 3 league games total during the regular season.
OSU had lost the battle on the boards 47-31. They had only made 54 percent of their free throws, and their senior, Marc Loving, glumly left the court before the game was over.
So is Ohio State a team headed for a turnaround, or are they the team Buckeye fans saw on Wednesday night?
We asked 97.1 The Fan staffers…
Jonathan “T-Bone” Smith:
Ohio State basketball is currently showing some disturbing trends. This is at least the third year in a row where the program has dealt with a player or group of players who were viewed by many to not be playing with any heart. Two years ago, it was the end of the Amir Williams era. Last year, Thad Matta himself said he was sick of looking at some of his players due to their poor attitudes. And this season, Marc Loving spent the entire season looking as disinterested as he had in any of his previous seasons at Ohio State. His attitude was contagious, and he was hardly alone in his exhibition of lackluster play.
There is a malaise over the program at the moment, thanks in large part to a lack of excitement from the fan base that equals or surpasses the lack of excitement seen on the court at the Schott.
The fix seems simple on the surface – get players who want to play at Ohio State, and the problems will all be magically solved. Except, I’m not confident the current coaching staff is equipped to locate that talent, or motivate it once it arrives on campus.
Gene Smith, meanwhile, says he is, and gave his coach a vote of confidence. Time will tell, and Thad Matta will get every chance to repair his program. But I certainly don’t think it’s unfair to ask if Thad Matta is capable of inspiring college basketball players not named Jae’Sean Tate or Aaron Craft.
Jeff “Tito” Thitoff:
The last two seasons have been disappointing, but Thad’s built up enough in the bank to earn another year to turn it around. The baseline for OSU should be an NCAA tournament berth, and I would consider a Sweet Sixteen appearance to be the highest expectation. Missing two years in a row is bad, but Thad gets another year to right the ship.
Clearly there are issues inside this program, given the turmoil of last season and the underachievement of this season. It would be very easy to blame the Keita Bates-Diop injury for the disappointing record in 2016-17. Surely, that took Ohio State’s most athletic player out of the lineup and also necessitated sticking Kam Williams into the starting lineup. Kam is better suited to come off the bench and he failed miserably in his new role.
It would also be easy to blame Marc Loving and JaQuan Lyle for their lethargic play and less-than-energetic performances. Neither has an ounce of leadership trickling through their veins. But the most blame goes to Thad Matta.
Not only does he coach these guys…he also recruited them. This isn’t the NBA where you can only coach the players the General Manager provides for you. In college basketball, the coach IS the General Manager.
Having said that, I would not fire Thad Matta. He’s the greatest coach this program has ever had. He’s won 9 combined Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships; he’s taken the Buckeyes to nine NCAA tournaments and two Final Fours in his 13 seasons; he’s recruited NBA talent.
Yes, these past three seasons have been uninspiring and disappointing, to say the least, but Thad has built up a solid basketball resume at a football school. He gets a pass with me. But I also think his leash has gotten much shorter in the past several years, not only because of the performance on the floor but because the attendance figures are dwindling.
From being a student at Ohio State in the years of Sullinger and Craft and going deep in the tournament, it is a little alarming to see the state of the program right now and where it’s been the past couple of seasons. It seems like it’s been a slow bleed for the past two-to-three years to get to this point, but I have confidence in the administration to keep Coach Matta around to give him the opportunity to turn the program around and get back to being competitive within the B1G and the national landscape of college basketball.
Thad Matta’s tenure reminds me quite a bit right now of Jay Wright’s at Villanova. After years of postseason appearances, the Wildcats did earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament in 2010-11, but that was despite finishing ninth in their conference. An even more dismal year followed when they went just 13-19 in 2011-2012. Players were leaving early. Players were transferring.
Wright knew it was unsustainable, so he sought out of the advice of NBA coaching great Greg Popovich. He adopted a new philosophy when it came to the Nova roster.
Now Matta must show the same courage. Thad already expressed a new attitude when he said he was going to focus on bringing in the players who wanted to be at Ohio State rather than recruiting the players Ohio State wanted.
He might also consider changes to the team’s training regimen, assistant coaching staff, anything that might juice the program in a similar way to what Villanova did in the lead-up to their 2016 National Championship.
One change that does not need to be made? Firing Matta. He’s more than earned the chance to show he can Wright this program.
Ohio State’s 2016-17 basketball season was inexcusable in my mind. I refuse to allow an injury to Keita Bates-Diop as a justification for the season going completely off the rails. Lots of teams incur injuries to more important players.
The fact was this team still had more than 50 points per game returning even without KBD, and they just flat out stunk. JaQuan Lyle didn’t take a huge step forward, Kam Williams did not show up to hit timely shots and Marc Loving was well, Marc Loving.
As to the unrest about the program and the job status of Thad Matta, I’m one that is now as skeptical as I’ve ever been. A self-proclaimed Thad lover, it is undeniable what he HAS done with this program. It is sad that it has come to this for many people. But when you make a lot of money, go a few years without results and home attendance steadily declines, the talk is valid.
I can get on board with having another year to see what happens but it’s like the AD’s statement says. The on-court performance has to improve. For me it has to improve significantly next year and that at a minimum means making the NCAAs. If not, my head will start to fill with realistic candidates out there (if they’re still there) like Archie Miller, Buzz Williams, and Chris Holtmann.