Ohio State shocked the college basketball world Monday by bringing a surprising end to the Thad Matta Era.
Now the Buckeyes will shake up the college basketball world with their quest to start the next era of hoops in Columbus.
But perhaps athletics director Gene Smith, who put himself in a strange if not bad spot by making a coaching change in the summer instead of the spring, can find success sticking to the same blueprint that brought Matta to Ohio State in the first place.
In the litany of candidate lists that hit the internet after Matta’s exit Monday, one constant seemed to pop up: The coaches at Matta’s previous employers might be the two best — and most realistic — options for the Buckeyes.
Matta arrived in Columbus after three seasons at Xavier, where he took the Musketeers to the Elite Eight to cap three straight NCAA tournament appearances. There’s no assurance that going back to the Xavier well — or the one at Butler, where Matta spent one season prior to moving to Xavier — would yield another one of the school’s all-time great coaches. But these programs have current proven winners who have experience leading major-conference programs, two boxes surely in need of checking on Smith’s list.
Xavier head coach Chris Mack has done great things since Sean Miller left Cincinnati, taking the Musketeers to seven NCAA tournament appearances in his eight seasons. That includes a trip to the Elite Eight just this past March. Mack is 187-91 at Xavier, making him an attractive option for Ohio State. With Smith talking Monday about wanting to better recruit the Buckeye State, hiring someone from an in-state program would be a plus.
Then there’s Butler head coach Chris Holtmann, who has done admirable work since taking over two seasons after Stevens left Indianapolis for the NBA. Holtmann’s Bulldogs teams have won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of his three seasons, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen this past season. He’s 70-31 in those three campaigns, also doing recruiting work in the Midwest.
But what about outside of Mack and Holtmann? Lists circulating Monday afternoon and evening contained some big names, huge names. While Ohio State is a phenomenal job and should attract the same amount of national attention that Indiana did when it made its coaching change earlier this offseason, guys like Billy Donovan, Brad Stevens, Jay Wright and the aforementioned Miller just might not be able to be lured away from their current cushy positions. Donovan and Stevens are coaching perennial NBA playoff teams, with Stevens’ Boston Celtics in particular primed to be one of the Association’s top squads next season. Wright and Miller have perennial college hoops powers under their control at Villanova and Arizona, respectively, and as good as Ohio State is, is it any better than a lateral move from either of those two programs?
Of course, the natural option would have been Archie Miller, who like his older brother, Sean, is a former Matta assistant. But the younger Miller was snapped up in the more conventionally timed coaching search at Indiana back in the spring. Had Smith made the decision to move on from Matta then, he might’ve been the one to hire Archie Miller.
Other, more realistic options laid out Monday include another local option in Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, who’s spent the past 11 seasons helming the Bearcats. Cronin’s last seven teams have reached the NCAA tournament, with the best performance being a Sweet Sixteen berth in 2012. Again, a guy with experience recruiting Ohio.
Other interesting names mentioned include Virginia’s Tony Bennett (Big Ten experience as a Bo Ryan assistant at Wisconsin), Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall (a mid-major power who hasn’t shown much interest in leaving in the past) and current Ohio State assistant Chris Jent (who also served as an assistant and interim head coach in the NBA).
A final name of interest: Tom Crean. The former Indiana head coach was fired in March after nine seasons in Bloomington that featured varying levels of success — none of it ever coming consistently. That being said, he did some great things under the weight of gigantic expectations and expertly knows the Big Ten and the Midwestern recruiting ground.
A high-profile search in June is a rarity, but here the Buckeyes are. Smith will almost certainly land someone impressive. The question will be just how much effect it will have on coaching jobs around the college basketball world. Buckle up.