In a surprise announcement on Monday afternoon, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith announced that head coach Thad Matta would be stepping down from the program as head coach effectively. It was a shocking development that nobody expected to happen so deep into the offseason.
Since taking over, Matta has been one of the Big Ten’s most successful coaches. He had a 337-123 (.733) overall record with the Buckeyes and a 150-78 (.658) record in Big Ten play. He also led Ohio State to nine NCAA Tournament appearances, five Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, and two Final Fours.
The highlight of Matta’s career was likely Ohio State’s trip to the National Championship game in 2007 where the team fell just short against Florida. That Ohio State team was led by future NBA players such as Mike Conley and Greg Oden.
But even with all that success, Matta is now out as head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes and the program will be looking for a new leader. Expect a national search with a lot of big names. Here are 11 names to watch.
Ohio State Head Coaching Candidates:
1. Mick Cronin (Cincinnati)
-Background: Perhaps no midwestern coach is more underrated than Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin. He has led Cincinnati to seven straight NCAA Tournaments, seven straight 20 win seasons, an AAC title (2014), and a Sweet 16 appearance (2012). Notably, during last season, Cincinnati won 30 games for the first time in 15 years. He also led Murray State to NCAA Tournament appearances in 2004 and 2006.
-Likeliness of happening: There’s no debating that Ohio State would be a substantial step up for Cronin. Cincinnati isn’t a bad job, but it’s hard to compare a major Big Ten opening to an AAC job. Even if you like mid-major basketball, there’s a fundamental difference between those two options.
However, like some of the other candidates on this list, Cronin is not going to be a splashy hire for fans. He’s only won one league title in 11 seasons at Cincinnati and has only made it past the Round of 32 once. Ohio State may not have the expectations of a Duke or Kentucky, but it’s hard to think that would cut it in Columbus.
2. Chris Holtmann (Butler)
-Background: After Brad Stevens left Butler for the Boston Celtics and one year under Brandon Miller, Holtmann took over and has led the Bulldogs to one of the best three-year runs of any program. During that time, Butler has posted a 70-31 (.693) overall record and has made three straight NCAA Tournaments.
-Likeliness of happening: Holtmann has proven himself to be a coach capable of leading a program to success in a major conference. There’s no debating that he would be a really nice hire for the Buckeyes. Assuming that Ohio State can’t move in on some of its dream candidates, Holtmann would certainly appease the fanbase.
But, on the other side, how interested is Holtmann in moving to a “bigger” job? He’s in a great situation at Butler with plenty of job security. And, moreover, does he want to leave in the middle of the offseason for a job for a rebuild?
3. Chris Jent (Ohio State Assistant)
-Background: Very few coaches in the country have a more decorated resume than Chris Jent. Not only has he spent serious time in the NBA with the Cavaliers, Kings, Knicks, Magic, and 76ers, but he’s also played overseas in Greece, Italy, and Spain, among other places. Additionally, he is familiar with Ohio State, having coached from 2011 through 2013 and last season under Matta.
-Likeliness of happening: It’s hard to think Jent wouldn’t accept the job, should Gene Smith decide to offer it to him. Considering that he’s currently sitting as an assistant coach, it’s unlikely he would decline more money and a better job title.
Unfortunately, Jent would represent an incredibly unproven option for the Buckeyes. Despite his long and impressive resume, his head coaching tenure is limited to a portion of the 2004-’05 season when he coached 18 games as the interim head coach for the Orlando Magic. Even if you like him, that’s a major risk to take.
Simply put, Jent would be the most risk adverse option of all the ones on this list. In fact, given the timing of Matta’s departure, Jent would probably be willing to stick around as an assistant coach for next season, even without Matta. If Smith is smart, he will keep Jent in his back pocket, should other options decline.
4. Chris Mack (Xavier)
Background: Since taking over at Xavier in 2009, the Musketeers have become one of college basketball’s most consistent programs. Xavier has made the NCAA Tournament in seven of Mack’s eight seasons at the helm and received a six seed or higher on four separate occasions. Mack has also done a great job of recruiting the midwest.
Likeliness of happening: On paper, Mack appears to be a good fit. He’s a midwestern guy that has shown the ability to build a consistent program in a good conference. That’s a good hunk of what Buckeye fans should be looking for in a new head coach.
However, there are some potential road blocks to Mack jumping to Columbus. To start, he’s not going to be a particularly splashy hire for Buckeye fans. That’s because he’s never won a major conference title and has only made it past the Sweet 16 once. The overall success is there, but he doesn’t have the achievements fans often hope for in a new coach.
On the other side, one has to wonder how Mack views the Ohio State job. Mack has already done a great job of recruiting Ohio at Xavier. Would he want to leave (what appears to be) a really stable situation for new question marks?
-Others To Watch:
5. Chris Collins (Northwestern)
It’s rare for coaches to switch jobs within the same conference, but why shouldn’t Collins be considered a candidate? He turned Northwestern into an NCAA Tournament team and built it almost exclusively on midwestern talent. In fact, his development of Bryant McIntosh, recruited out of Indiana, has been particularly impressive. There’s no reason to think he couldn’t be even more successful in Columbus.
6. Tom Crean (Former Indiana Head Coach)
Fans at the college level aren’t used to seeing retreads, but Tom Crean could actually be a decent fit for the Buckeyes. Don’t expect Smith to deeply pursue this option unless others decline, but Crean probably looks better on paper than many fans think. He’s won at a high level, recruited the midwest, and would be given a fresh start away from the meat grinder of Indiana. It probably won’t happen, but . . . maybe.
7. Andy Enfield (USC)
This is a bit of a wildcard. Enfield doesn’t have an obvious connections to Ohio State, but he’s a proven coach that has turned two programs (Florida Gulf Coast and USC) into legitimate teams on the national stage. He’s also a young coach and his teams play a really exciting style of basketball. It’s not likely, but it wouldn’t be a bad hire.
8. Ben Jacobson (Northern Iowa)
Despite an underwhelming 14-16 performance for Northern Iowa this season, Jacobson still remains one of the best mid-major candidates on the market. He took Northern Iowa to two straight NCAA Tournaments and built the Panthers into a top 20 KenPom team and pulled off some impressive wins in March. Of course, the biggest concern would be that he hasn’t shown sustained success, or done it in a major conference.
9. Gregg Marshall (Wichita State)
Marshall was the architect behind Wichita State’s explosion onto the college basketball scene in the past decade. Despite going 11-20 during his first season, the Shockers have won at least 25 games in each of the last eight seasons and 30 games in four of the last five seasons. However, even if Ohio State is a nationally recognized program, it’s pretty hard to see Marshall leaving for a non-blueblood opening. As such, this one is probably more in the category of a “prayer” than a realistic option.
-Coaches To Stop Talking About:
10. Billy Donovan (Oklahoma City Thunder)
There have been rumblings for quite some time that Donovan might be interested in getting back in the college coaching world. But, let’s be honest about things, Donovan is not leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to return to Ohio State. As such, let’s just put this one to bed immediately.
11. Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics)
After Tom Crean was let go by Indiana, there was a lot of discussion about whether Stevens would be interested in moving back to the college level. Expect some message boards to discuss the potential of Stevens to come to Columbus, but don’t be fooled. Stevens is not leaving the Celtics for Ohio State.
[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article indicated Holtmann took over directly after Brad Stevens. That has been corrected.]