Beilein: Pro attrition, transfers led to Matta's undoing

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Michigan coach John Beilein has been around long enough that he knows to expect the unexpected.

Michigan head coach John Beilein

So when Ohio State announced Monday it was parting ways with coach Thad Matta after 13 seasons, it didn’t completely stun Beilein.

"I'm never surprised by anything anymore,” Beilein said during a radio interview on 107.3 WBBL’s “The Huge Show” on Wednesday. “I'm sure that everybody would like the timing to have been different there. This is a tough business and they've been hit hard by pro attrition over time and you can't catch up at times.

“It's just kids transferring, it's been very difficult. But my God, I think he had five Big Ten championships in those years he was there. I don't know anybody else has had five during that time. That's pretty good."

During Matta’s tenure, the Buckeyes won five regular-season Big Ten titles and four conference tournaments, the most titles of any Big Ten coach over the last 13 seasons. Matta also had the third-best win percentage (.733) in Big Ten history for a coach with at least 10 seasons — trailing only Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan (.737) and Indiana’s Bob Knight (.734)

Yet, Matta became the third Big Ten coach let go during the offseason’s coaching carousel.

In March, Illinois fired John Groce and hired Brad Underwood, whose Oklahoma State team lost to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and Indiana axed Tom Crean and replaced him with former Dayton coach Archie Miller.

"None of us complain on paydays but (being a Division I coach) is a high-stress, high-reward job. All I know is (Matta) did a tremendous job against us every year I've been here,” said Beilein, who is now the third-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten at 10 years. “He was never a delight to coach against, but really a good man.”

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith cited lackluster recruiting as one of the tipping points that led to Matta’s dismissal.

But the Buckeyes also had four of their five players from the 2015 recruiting class transfer following the 2015-16 season and had star guard JaQuan Lyle leave this past season.

Beilein said the combination of players transferring and heading to the NBA is the most difficult hurdle to overcome when it comes to keeping a program competitive year in and year out. The Wolverines have dealt with both in recent years — losing multiple players to the NBA in 2013 and 2014 and four via transfer after the 2015-16 season — but have still managed to reach the NCAA Tournament in six of the past seven seasons.

"I just think the landscape of it now, it used to be maybe motivating players to get better and coaching them up, just getting them to buy in to the team concept because they're all high school all-stars,” Beilein said. “The biggest thing now to sustain is retention and Wisconsin has been a great example of that. Michigan State has been a great example of retention of their players. That's really huge whether it's for good or for transfers. Guys go to the NBA or guys transferring, you get hit by both of those, it's really hard to maintain it right now and that’s a big challenge.”

Yet as Beilein looks ahead and begins preparing for the 2017-18 season, he said the biggest offseason challenge for Michigan is replacing the production from six outgoing players — starters Derrick Walton Jr. (graduation), Zak Irvin (graduation) and D.J. Wilson (NBA), and backups Mark Donnal (transfer), Andrew Dakich (transfer) and Sean Lonergan (graduation) — from this past season’s Sweet 16 team.

It’s a stark difference from last offseason when Beilein returned his entire starting lineup from a team that clawed its way into the NCAA Tournament.

“I didn't realize this until we were 4-6 in the Big Ten last year, the fact that we made the NCAA Tournament the year before (in 2016), we just gutted one out. We were the last team in and we won and then lost a tough one to Notre Dame (in the first round),” Beilein said. “That was probably really good for ’16 but really bad for ’17 because guys thought, ‘OK, we're going to be good again because we got to be better, we got everybody back.’ And that didn't work as well. We were not an NCAA Tournament on February 1 and all of a sudden it clicked and we were close to being an Elite Eight team.

“That's the biggest danger for us right now. Do we understand how we got to where we were last year and how do you replace all that scoring, all that leadership that we had from those guys? Five seniors and then D.J. Wilson, that's six guys that either helped us with points, leadership in some way.”