Thad Matta is perhaps the name that’s gained the most traction when it comes to Pitt’s three-day-old search for a head basketball coach. The former Ohio State coach spent the 2017-18 season at home after being fired by the Buckeyes last June.
Recently, he’s been a hot name, making a visit to Ole Miss, where the Rebels are looking to replace Andy Kennedy, and has also been reported to be interested in the Georgia job that just opened when the Bulldogs fired Mark Fox on Saturday.
Of course, his interest isn’t the only hiccup when it comes to Matta’s potential involvement in the Pitt job. One of the reasons that many associated with the Pitt program were willing to show Stallings the door after two seasons was that Pitt’s recruiting, which was ranked No. 51 in the country in 2017 according to 247Sports and is currently No. 113 in 2018. The 0-19 season against ACC opponents was a tough pill to swallow for Pitt fans and boosters, but it might have been tempered a lot by some signs of talent on the horizon.
That’s an important point because one of the primary reasons that the Buckeyes moved on from Matta was some of his own recruiting failures at Ohio State. Matta’s 2016 class was ranked No. 42 after finishing in the top 10 in 2014 and 2015.
It’s believed that part of the problem is Matta’s physical health. He’s dealt with back pain all of his life, and after a partially botched surgery in 2007, he’s been unable to move his right foot without the help of a brace. Some have suggested that Matta’s physical limitations impeded his ability to land top-flight recruits.
Pittsburgh Sports Now reached out to Columbus Dispatch reporter Adam Jardy for some more background on Matta and what kind of fit he may be at Pitt. Jardy covered Matta during the end of his tenure at Ohio State, and said there was a marketed difference from his early years.
“Over time, he just wasn’t recruiting as hard,” Jardy said. “He wasn’t making visits, he wasn’t out there on the road, and as a result, the quality of the player suffered.”
If Matta is going to be a realistic fit at Pitt, that would have to change. It’s possible the time off has given Matta a chance to focus on his health for the first time in a long time and get his body back to a place where he’s more able to be on the road. It’s also possible that he’ll be willing to approach coaching differently at this stage in his career, with a staff of assistants with a high degree of autonomy that could do most of the heavy lifting on the recruiting front and let Matta focus on basketball.
On that front, there’s little question that he’d be an excellent hire. In his 13 seasons with the Buckeyes, they went to the postseason 10 times — and his first season, the team was ineligible. Of those 10 postseason trips, eight were to the NCAA Tournament and the Buckeyes won the NIT in 2008. In Matta’s eight NCAA Tournaments, Ohio State made five Sweet 16’s, three Elite Eights, two Final Fours and one National Championship game appearance. he won 20 games or more in each of his first 11 seasons. He’s the schools all-time wins leader and he had 10 players drafted into the NBA, including No. 1 overall Greg Oden in 2007, Evan Turner at No. 2 in 2010, D’Angelo Russell at No. 2 in 2015 and Mike Conley at No. 4 in 2007.
It’s an impressive resume and it’s easy to see why he’s in high demand in the current coaching cycle. One of the other often-heard criticisms of Stallings is that he was never able to connect with the fanbase as a likable figure. Jardy doesn’t think that would be an issue with Matta.
“I doubt you’ll find anyone that will have a bad word to say about Thad Matta,” Jardy said. “He’s a very warm dude and he’s really funny.”
There are also questions about how much Matta is truly interested in returning to the coaching ranks. There is a provision in his buyout with Ohio State that requires him to seek out work, so Matta’s interest in positions might not necessarily signify a true desire to return to coaching. But Jardy believes that he does still want to coach, despite his physical ailments.
“My thought at the time was that he absolutely wanted to keep coaching,” Jardy said. “I think if it was his choice, he’d still be coaching.”
If that’s his wish, it looks like Matta is going to have it granted this offseason. The only thing left to figure out is where.