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Coaching Search Bracket: Jerome Tang vs. Thad Matta

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For long-tenured assistants like Jerome Tang, the results running their own programs are mixed. That’s not the case for Thad Matta, but five years after drop-foot forced him out Ohio State, any chance of a return seems slim. Which presents less risk?

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Half of the candidates in our field are gone, including one — Colorado State’s Niko Medved — who pulled himself out of the coaching market entirely by signing a contract extension.

Did we go overboard with 15 candidates? Maybe. But readers were pretty clear in their preferences. The only mild drama involved a split opinion over Kim English, who unfortunately lost in our tiebreaker format. At the start, we wondered how much consensus would exist. Turned out, it’s more than we thought.

Maybe that changes in this round.

The format remains unchanged. We’re just deciding regional winners now. But instead of full-profiles, we’re going to compare each coach head-to-head. At the bottom of each piece is a poll, where you have 24 hours to make your preference known. The fan vote will make up 50 percent of the vote.

Who makes up the other half? The Rock M staff.

If the staff is unanimous and the fans make the same selection, easy enough. If, however, there is a consensus amongst the staff, but the fans disagree, we have a tie. To break the tie, we’ve enlisted the services of Jim Root (@2ndChancePoints), who will render the final verdict.

One half of our Final Four is already set, and today, we determine which riskier option you would prefer: Jerome Tang or Thad Matta. Our other semifinal features a pair of power-conference options in Dana Altman and Chris Holtmann.


Let’s level with each other. Neither of these options is particularly inspiring.

Thad Matta’s happily ensconced in a cushy job with Indiana where he doesn’t have to jeopardize his quality of life. Most retreads don’t spend five years staying out of the game willingly, especially those with Matta’s credentials.

As for Tang, it’s doubtful he produces the immediate return to relevancy that Tommy Lloyd pulled off. Unlike Arizona, which Sean Miller left fully stocked, the pantry in Columbia is missing some key ingredients: proven ball-handling, reliable jump-shooting, and adequate interior depth.

Your task is to decide which presents less of a gamble.

Like athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois and chancellor Mun Choi, I suspect you’d only turn to these candidates if several other options fell away. But even if they strike out on multiple candidates, Missouri’s decision-makers can call up Kim English and bet on the alum’s obvious upside — a hire that fans would also support.

In some ways, Tang’s situation isn’t that dissimilar from Lloyd or Washington coach Mike Hopkins.

Both were coaches-in-waiting at their former schools – Gonzaga and Syracuse – which is fine until several years pass. Hopkins leveraged his time with Jim Boeheim to return to the Pacific Northwest where he grew up. Meanwhile, Lloyd’s two decades in Gonzaga appealed to the brass in Tucson, who found it tough to lure top-end candidates with the program facing potential sanctions for recruiting violations.

While Hopkins’ start wasn’t quite so blistering, the Huskies made the NIT his first season, and in his second campaign, the core of Matisse Thybulle, Jaylen Nowell, and Noah Dickerson led UW to a regular-season Pac-12 title. On the recruiting trail, Hopkins’ relationship with Isaiah Stewart convinced the big man to come west as the focal point of a top-10 class.

Instead of closing the gap on in-state rival Gonzaga – and Lloyd – Washington dealt with chemistry issues and stumbled to a 15-17 mark. And in the past two seasons, the Huskies are just 22-36, with Hopkins likely coaching for his job next season.

And when you pull back to look at the entirety of the last decade, plucking a top assistant and hoping for replication hasn’t proven all that successful. Before last spring, six programs opted for that plan. Those coaches produced a 404-419 combined record.

Among that group, former Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski went 128-95 in seven seasons at Marquette, where he also signed three top-25 recruiting classes. He was fired last spring and replaced by Shaka Smart, who used the job to escape a warming seat at Texas. The next most-successful coach? Hopkins in Seattle.

Lloyd deserves immense credit for his work in Arizona, but Mizzou and Kansas State won’t offer anything close to the same conditions for Tang. Instead, he may find himself in a position like former Oregon assistant Tony Stubblefield, who went .500 his first season at moribund DePaul.

Sure, Tang could prove to be a masterful architect. But recent history suggests that the apprentice often has trouble executing their build. I’ll also reiterate this point: if you want to replicate Baylor’s style, why not hire North Texas’ Grant McCasland? He runs the same no-middle defense and has deep recruiting ties across the state from his time with Drew and as JUCO coach.

And yet, Tang’s not confronting questions about his health.

Matta’s exit from Ohio State epitomizes unfortunate. After having back surgery in 2007, he spent the next decade wrestling with “drop foot,” eventually wearing a brace to stand or walk. “I went through a year where I couldn’t walk,” Matta told the Sporting news in 2017. “I couldn’t take my shoes off after a game. I couldn’t take my pants off after a game.”

Since 2010, schools have gambled on a dozen coaches fired from their last job. Sometimes, it’s Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes. Other times, it’s Kevin Stallings and Billy Gillispie. Matta? He settled in the awkward middle ground of retirement and dismissal.

Last spring, Matta’s fitness was at the center of conflicting reports about whether IU had offered him the job. One report said the parties agreed on a deal, which fell apart when Matta failed a physical. Several hours later, The Indianapolis Star reported no agreement was ever in place.

Each offseason, speculation around whether Matta might try to return to the sideline becomes a spot on a bingo card. But it’s easy to understand why. He’s won 74 percent of his games, made two Final Fours, and finished as a national runner-up in 2007. During his time in Columbus, Ohio State won the Big Ten’s regular-season and conference tournament titles three times.

Matta’s worst season was his last – a 17-15 campaign where he was basically immobile. When he’s anything close to healthy, you can bank on 20-plus wins and a top-30 finish in KenPom.

But there’s no such certainty, and as MU’s search unfolds, keeping Matta in the mix is pure speculation.

I don’t envy you, but one of these candidates must move on.


Poll

Which coach would you prefer to see leading Missouri next season?

This poll is closed

  • 47%
    Jerome Tang
    (106 votes)
  • 52%
    Thad Matta
    (115 votes)
221 votes total Vote Now