TL; DR Version: There are credible reports from several people around the program that Thad Matta is on campus today, and that he is the leading candidate to assume the head coaching position of the Alabama men’s basketball team. Perhaps less credible overall, there are additional rumors are that AD Greg Byrne is willing to accelerate the Coleman Coliseum renovation to secure the services of the right candidate, including Matta. And several #sauces have suggested that one of the issues down the stretch in 2018-2019, was that Johnson had lost his team. Compounding that problem was the Tide’s top target, Mountain Brook’s Trendon Watford, allegedly did not want to play for Johnson.
Take all of these for what they’re worth.
So, let’s get to know Thad Matta.
Thad Matta is about as Midwest as they come. From rural east-central Illinois, he began his playing career at Southern Illinois and then transferred to Butler, where he would be a three-year contributor and team captain his senior season (DYK: He is 6th in all-time FT % shooting at Butler? Can’t imagine that would be helpful, ya’ know?)
After a decade as an assistant (and all-but one year spent in the upper Midwest), Matta got his head coaching opportunity, being tabbed to lead his alma matter in 2000. It was a rousing success: The Bulldogs posted school records for wins, won the regular season and conference titles, and he was named the Coach of the year. His Butler team advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
That kind of success drew the attention of Xavier, who promptly poached Matta from Butler. At Xavier, Matta instantly found success — his first team promptly won 26 games, and won the both the A10 regular season and tournament crowns. His next two teams would also win 26 games, and add in another A10 title over that stretch. He advanced to the NCAA tourney all three years, but lost in the second round the first two seasons. His final year at Xavier was his breakthrough season, with the Muskies advancing the Elite 8. He was named A10 COTY twice in three seasons.
His teams at Butler and Xavier were outstanding shooting teams — shooting no lower than 45% from the floor, and no lower than 36% from three, in those four seasons.
Just so happens that kind of success in the Midwest draws the attention of some local sleeping giants. Enter the Buckeyes (the crappiest Metallica cover, IYAM.)
Ohio State Tenure:
For casual basketball fans, it is Matta’s Ohio State tenure that most will recognize him for, particularly in recruiting and developing outstanding point guards Mike Conley and Aaron Craft (hear that, Kira Lewis?).
In 13 seasons with tOSU, Matta advanced to the post-season 11 times — the first year, the Bucketes were on probation and ineligible, in the latter, his health had greatly affected his coaching, and he parted ways with OSU after a 17-15 season. We’ll come back to the health in a bit.
But, in the 11 seasons wedged in between, even in a basketball powerhouse like the Big 10, CTM’s Buckeye teams were absolute terrors. In an 11-year span, he won the B1G regular season title five times, the B1G Tournament four times. He went to the postseason every year, including nine NCAA tournaments.
In the NCAA tournament, his teams made the Sweet 16 or better five times, including two Final Fours and a national runner-up finish to Billy Donovan’s 2006-2007 Florida Gators. He also won the NIT...as a talented team that misses the NCAA tournament ought to do (side-eyes Coleman Coliseum)
It was a feast or famine postseason though: In that same span his teams did not make it out of the first weekend on four occasions. However, a lot of that has to do with the team he inherited initially...and later in his tenure, yes, his health. After stepping away from Columbus, Matta has spent the last year concentrating on his health and spending that fat buyout money.
Health has come up a few times. So let’s talk about that.
Thad Matta is still a younger man, just 51 years old. He’s undoubtedly had tremendous success too, no matter where he’s been, particularly in maximizing results from programs that simply ought to have been better than they were (cough OSU, cough Xavier). His teams shoot well, play aggressive ball-pressure defense, and look to get up the floor, even though the offense is primarily a half-court one. That sounds like a good recipe for the grinding, physical SEC, where you have to mudwrestle with Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida and the like.
But, despite his success, he has a well-documented bad back — four surgeries and counting before his 50th birthday. They certainly limited his effectiveness at OSU, especially in the final years of his tenure. In his OSU career, the Buckeyes posted double-digit losses six times in 13 seasons — four of those were his final four seasons. Not coincidentally, in that same span, his teams were eliminated in the first and second round of the NCAA tourney, bounced in the second round of the NIT, and then did make the postseason at all.
If he is healthy again, it is an absolute perfect fit: success, experience in generating results at a football school, the type and style of play, and the Tide’s roster on tap.
That is a tremendous if.
If Alabama is gets Matta even as he appeared in the last few years of his OSU career, that is already a modest improvement over the last decade of ‘Bama hoops. But, if the Tide gets the Thad Matta of the prior 15 years? Then Alabama just may have the potential to become an SEC powerhouse.
I can’t sell this any more than the bare record suggests. This would be an out-of-the-ballpark, low-hangers-in-the-dirt hire by Greg Byrne. If you must pay a basketball coach $3 million, and pay a Top 15 salary, then Matta has earned it. Per his final contract with Ohio State, Alabama can actually give him a modest pay raise even if it merely pays Matta what it was paying Avery Johnson.
The dollars wouldn’t be the hangup here; the “ifs” will be — if he has mutual interest in the position and if his health permits.