Nick Wass / AP
Tuesday, March 19, 2019 | 2 a.m.
UNLV occupies a unique space in the college basketball landscape. The Runnin’ Rebels operate with the budget of a mid-major school, but the on-court expectations are that of a blue-blood program.
Fans expect UNLV to make the NCAA tournament every single season, with regular runs to the second weekend (and beyond) mixed in every few years. It’s harder than it sounds, and only one mid-major program in the country has been able to live up to that standard for any length of time: Gonzaga. Threading that needle is nearly impossible.
Which brings us to the most prominent name that has emerged in UNLV’s coaching search. Thad Matta is a unique fit for a unique situation, as he’s got an unassailable winning record at the mid-major and high-major levels. Under normal circumstances, a coach with Matta’s resumé (including two Final Four appearances) would be well out of UNLV’s price range, as the Rebels paid their last two coaches under $1 million per season.
But after flaming out toward the tail end of his 13-year run at Ohio State, Matta has taken a couple years off and appears to be ready to get back in the game. And with a recent influx of booster cash, UNLV might actually be able to meet his contract demands.
That just leaves one question: Could Matta win at UNLV?
If Matta were to be named the head coach at UNLV, he would absolutely win the introductory press conference, not just due to name recognition but because of his likely message. He won’t sell the Rebels as a rebuilding project; that has not been Matta’s specialty. He excels at taking over a roster, coaching it up and winning games right away.
When Matta was elevated from assistant to head coach at Butler for the 2000-01 season, he inherited a team that went 23-8 the year before and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Four of five starters returned, and Matta’s fifth starter was a player who sat out the previous year at Butler as a redshirt transfer. Matta guided that veteran-laden team to a 24-8 record and won an NCAA tourney game, then accepted the head coaching job at Xavier.
Much like at Butler, Matta inherited an experienced Xavier team that went 21-8 the year before and went one-and-done in the NCAAs. The team returned future NBA players David West and Lionel Chalmers, as well as high-scoring guard Romain Sato, and Matta got the most out of them — a 26-6 record and a trip to the second round of the big dance. West, Chalmers and Sato returned the next year, and Matta again posted a 26-6 mark, including one NCAA tourney win. The following season — Matta’s third at Xavier — the team was still built around Chalmers and Sato (West left for the NBA), and they peaked with a run to the Elite Eight.
Matta was then lured away to Ohio State despite having never been asked to build a program from the ground up. In fact, the Buckeyes job was the first time he did not inherit an NCAA tournament team that was returning all its key players. Matta still led them to a 20-12 record and an 8-8 mark in the Big Ten (Ohio State was not eligible for the NCAA tournament that season due to infractions by the previous coaching staff).
In his second season at OSU, with largely the same roster, Matta guided the Buckeyes to a 26-6 record, a Big Ten regular-season title, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and one tourney win before getting upset in the second round.
When it finally came time for Matta to build a team around his own recruits the next season, he proved he could do that too, as he brought in one of the best classes of all-time and rode freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley to the national championship game. But for the first six seasons of his head-coaching career — with a sample size of three different schools — he simply took the rosters he inherited and led them to better results.
For a UNLV squad that could return a bunch of veterans, Matta seems like a tremendous fit. He would undoubtedly get the most out of the current Rebels and could coach them to 20-plus wins and have them in the hunt for the Mountain West title in his first year.
Style of play
So how did Matta seem to get the most out of his roster at every stop? The obvious answer is defense — he emphasizes that side of the ball and his teams consistently rank near the top of the nation in defensive efficiency. In his first 12 years at Ohio State, he had the Buckeyes in the top 30 of KenPom.com’s adjusted defense rankings 10 times.
But the more interesting X’s and O’s are on the other end of the court. Matta fielded some elite offenses at Ohio State, but he did it with a playbook from a different era.
His goal on offense was to create easy looks at the basket — layups and dunks — and he did that more effectively than any coach in the country. In his second year at OSU, the Buckeyes’ offense generated 15.5 shots around the rim per game (excluding post-ups), according to Synergy Sports data. That ranked 18th in the country. The next year, when Matta made his first Final Four run, they upped it to 16.5 inside shots per game, which ranked fifth.
All told, in the 12 years that data is available for Matta’s 13-year run at Ohio State, he had the Buckeyes in the top 50 seven times when it came to creating inside baskets:
That wasn’t by accident. Matta did it with his system, which focuses on screening, physical play, and ball movement. Passing is at a premium for Matta — especially interior passing. The Buckeyes didn’t get their layups by dribbling all the way to the basket; they got them by playing at a slow pace, moving the ball, drawing defenders out of position and exploiting rotations with smart passing.
When Matta made his second Final Four run in 2011-12, Ohio State ranked 19th in most shots around the basket. And just as importantly, they shot a very-efficient 68.6 percent on those attempts (for comparison, the national average on those shots was 60.9 percent that season).
A large chunk of those shots were uncontested, easy layups. More than half of the shots were assisted (53.9 percent), which indicates an elite interior passing team (for comparison, the national average was 41.8 percent).
That style worked splendidly for the first decade of Matta’s tenure at Ohio State. But over his last four years the Buckeyes lost their advantage on interior baskets, as they ranked 66th, 99th, 77th and 147th, respectively, in those seasons. Matta’s system still worked — other systems just started working better:
Matta’s offense still generated roughly the same number of inside looks as it did earlier in his tenure — his last two years at OSU were actually the best in terms of shots at the rim — but college basketball changed around him. Other teams adopted analytics, with a focus on 3-point shooting and efficiency. With defenses spread out to defend the perimeter, driving lanes were open to attack the basket. The rest of college basketball started getting more layups, which negated the advantage that Matta’s offensive system gave Ohio State.
Just as Matta’s offense descended to the middle of the pack in efficiency, Ohio State fired him. So we never got a chance to see how (or even if) Matta would respond to the nationwide shift in strategy.
Matta’s teams were never reliant on the 3-point shot. His offenses were deliberate (usually outside the top 200 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo rankings) and single-mindedly focused on creating a shot close to the rim. Would we see the same attack if he were to become the head coach at UNLV?
Matta has an interesting recruiting history. He was only the head coach at Butler for one year, so he has no recruiting track record there. He coached a loaded, veteran team at Xavier for three years and failed to bring in any impact players of his own. But once he got to Ohio State, he turned into one of the best recruiters in the country for the better part of a decade.
In addition to the legendary Oden/Conley class, Matta’s staff was also responsible for bringing in blue-chip recruits like Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos, Evan Turner, B.J. Mullens, Aaron Craft, Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas. That’s a lot of stars. A team with one or two of those guys could win in any conference.
Matta’s golden touch didn’t last, however. Starting with his 2011 class, Matta brought in a series of disappointing recruits who produced diminishing returns on the court. D’Angelo Russell (2014) was the only consensus 5-star he landed over his final six years.
Some of that could be attributed to a decline in Matta’s health. A back injury reportedly caused him to take a backseat on the recruiting front, and if that’s the case, two years away from the game could have given him time to heal up.
It’s important, because UNLV has built-in recruiting advantages that make the program a sleeping giant in the Mountain West. But if Matta is still the recruiter he was over the second half of his Ohio State career, that advantage is rendered moot.
Also worth noting is that the entirety of Matta’s head coaching career was spent in Indiana and Ohio, and the vast majority of his blue-chip recruits hailed from that region. He’s never been a West Coast recruiter, and that is a key pipeline for the Runnin’ Rebels. Matta would probably have to hire at least one or two assistants with existing California ties in order to recruit successfully at UNLV.
The health/recruiting issue is the biggest question about Matta going forward. If a couple years away from the game have allowed him to heal up and he’s feeling close to full strength now — which wouldn’t be impossible, since he’s still only 51 years old — he should be able to bring top recruits to UNLV.
The other outstanding issue is his offensive philosophy. At Ohio State he preferred to run his offense inside the 3-point arc, and that worked like a charm until everyone else started shooting 3’s en masse. Could he adapt to the current game? Matta is a precise tactician, and with his smarts he should have little trouble tweaking his offense to incorporate more contemporary concepts. Defensively, he’ll always field elite units as long as he has the athletes.
For a program with UNLV’s expectations, Matta seems like as close to a sure thing as the Rebels could get. He’s still relatively young, he’s shown he can win at the mid-major level, he has multiple Final Four appearances, and he can win right away with the players UNLV has now.
There are conflicting reports as to whether UNLV and Matta are interested in each other, but if he were to become the next coach, odds are good that he would win big in Las Vegas.