In 2007, with his Ohio State Buckeyes ranked No. 1 and about to begin the march to a Final Four, Thad Matta made a statement to The New York Times that feels prescient in retrospect.
“In this profession, there’s so much luck involved in how the ball bounces.”
Bad luck and a few awry bounces of the ball can change things forever. In his 2007 Times interview, Matta refers specifically to what was nearly the most iconic moment of his coaching career; a moment predating his first head coaching job by five years.
Thad Matta was an assistant coach for a Western Carolina Catamounts team that fell to 10-12 on Valentine’s Day 1996. Following that loss to Virginia Military Institute, WCU ripped off its final four of the regular season, then extended their win streak to seven with a run through the Southern Conference Tournament.
The NCAA Tournament automatic bid remains the only in WCU history, and it was short-lived. But had the ball bounced just a little bit differently, it would have been the most famous NCAA Tournament appearance in history.
Western Carolina had Big Ten champion Purdue on the ropes, building an 8-point halftime lead and threatening to become the first No. 16 ever to upset a No. 1. This year marked 32 since the Tournament field expanded to this format, and the 16-over-1 still hasn’t happened.
Southern U. played Gonzaga to a six-point decision in 2013. But no team since 1996 came as close as Western Carolina. Thad Matta was on the sideline as Joel Fleming attempted a 3-pointer that bounced off the rim. Joe Stafford’s put-back attempt to force overtime also rimmed out, and Purdue escape, 73-71.
The lead from the UPI recap offers a fitting summary:
“Sometimes the closer one is to the impossible, the bigger the heartbreak afterward.”
Thad Matta went on to other NCAA Tournaments elsewhere. He was an assistant for another first-round heartbreak in 2000, when Butler was downed on a Mike Miller buzzer-beater.
With Matta as head coach the next year, Butler scored its First Round win with a blowout of Wake Forest. Matta also wore the Cinderella slipper well at Xavier, guiding the Musketeers to an Elite Eight in 2004 before taking the Ohio State job.
Despite the unceremonious end to his time in Columbus, Matta’s tenure was successful. He coached the Buckeyes to two Final Fours and five Big Ten championships. But if the ball bounced just a little bit differently in 1996, Western Carolina may very well be his best-remembered team.