Thad Matta's removal from his post as coach at Ohio State qualifies as an offseason college hoops bombshell.
No one expected this -- and now the sport is buzzing with gossip over who is going to be the next coach in Columbus. It's a bolt from the blue: One of the 15 most coveted jobs in college basketball is available. But the timing is interesting and could perhaps be inconvenient for a potential candidate or two. It's rare to have a job in college basketball open in the beginning of June. The spring recruiting period is over. Most roster turnover has taken place. In fact, this week marks the start of summer classes for a lot of players.
So to make a coaching swap now? It could be prove to be the right move by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, but it also looks like a panicky decision in the moment as well. Seeing Matta well up at his farewell press conference Monday, it was clear he didn't want out. Credit to Matta for handling it the way he did.
Which brings us to another twist: Matta is actually going to aid in the coaching search. An intriguing dynamic. Ohio State, being the desirable job that it is, will almost certainly lure a sitting head coach. It's too good of a gig to hire an assistant at this point.
Who should Ohio State consider? I give you seven realistic, practical candidates. In alphabetical order:
Former Indiana coach Tom Crean. Knows the league inside and out, is a quality X's and O's coach, and would likely have interest. Crean, 51, has a 356-231 career record and reached the Final Four in 2003 with Marquette. He won the Big Ten regular-season title twice with Indiana. Don't write this potential off. Crean will eventually coach again, and likely at a quality school. If OSU went with Crean, they'd be picking a coach who knows the region well, but as you'll see, that's the case with most of the candidates.
Cincinnati's Mick Cronin. One of college basketball's most underrated coaches, and an in-state option. Cronin, 45, has guided Cincinnati to seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments. His teams are always very good on defense. Cronin nearly left Cincinnati to coach UNLV in 2016. He has a top-25 team coming back next year, but Ohio State is unquestionably a jump up from what he has now. Smith specifically cited Matta's lack of success in recruiting as the reason for making this change, so the next coach would have to be a proven recruiter. Cronin has won while, for the most part, bringing in top 75-175 guys.
Oklahoma City Thunder's Billy Donovan. This could be the moonshot option, but there's a reason Donovan's name has been circulated with big job openings this year. First it was Indiana. Now, potentially Ohio State. Donovan, 52, won consecutive national titles at Florida, defeating the Buckeyes in the '07 title game. Donovan would obviously need to be lured away from the NBA lifestyle and with a massive paycheck. Fortunately, money will not be a problem for Ohio State. The Buckeyes boast one of the most lucrative athletic departments in college sports. I think Donovan could walk back into college hoops and succeed immediately.
Butler's Chris Holtmann. Just signed a new contract, but as always, that means nothing. If Ohio State is willing to pay the buyout -- and it has the money to do so, obviously -- then Holtmann won't be held back. Butler's maintained its national relevance in three years under Holtmann, who is 45. He's gone 70-31, and this past season Butler earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, its highest slot ever in the Big Dance. Holtmann wouldn't be a huge hire in name, but I think he could get Ohio State back to consistent top-five-in-the-Big-Ten status.
Xavier's Chris Mack. Mack has been an interesting coaching candidate over the past three years. This could be the opportunity that pulls him away from Xavier. The 47-year-old has made the NCAAs in seven of eight seasons with the Muskies, and took his 11th-seeded team to the Elite Eight in March. Mack has established a good reputation and built a top-three Big East program while becoming an affable face of his program. I know he can recruit at Ohio State's level, and he's obviously ready for a job like this. I think he's on the short list.
Wichita State's Gregg Marshall. A top-30 job has opened, meaning Marshall's name must, by law, be brought up. It's important to keep in mind that Marshall makes north of $3 million already. So what's going to get him to leave? A high-level job that will pay him even more. Remains to be seen if Ohio State will do that. If it does, it could make Marshall think long and hard. Wichita State returns basically everybody off a team that went 31-5 last season. Next season's Shockers could be the best in school history. Wichita State is now in the American Athletic Conference. Could he walk away from that to rebuild Ohio State? Marshall is 54 years old.
Virginia Tech's Buzz Williams. Solid sleeper choice. Williams has spent the past three years at Virginia Tech. The Hokies made the NCAAs last season, as a 9 seed. What's clear: The ceiling at Ohio State is vastly higher than at Tech. Like a few other candidates on this list, Williams has personality and he has recruiting ability. That's obviously vital, given Gene Smith induced himself to part ways with Matta at the most inopportune time of the recruiting calendar. Williams is just 44 and has a lot of coaching ahead of him. He's the youngest of the candidates listed here.
Steve Helwagen of Bucknuts also weighs in on the Ohio State coaching candidates over at 247 Sports.
Smith said Ohio State's national search will start immediately. There will be other names that pop up, undoubtedly, but timing is key here. Smith has to narrow his candidates in short order, then make a hire. The new coach has to determine which current OSU assistants will stay, or not, and get a staff together in time for the start of July's ever-critical live recruiting period. It's already a tough situation for Ohio State, but in order to put the program in the best position possible this summer, Smith should decide on his next basketball coach on or around June 22 at the latest.