Hooley: OSU's choice boil down to a Final 4

posted by Bruce Hooley -

There are four names that can rescue Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith's clumsy handling of Thad Matta's firing as OSU's head basketball coach.

But if Smith introduces anyone other than Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics, Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Xavier's Chris Mack or Sean Miller of Arizona as Matta's successor, there will be questions about the new coach's ability to build upon the foundation Matta established over 13 seasons.

Sure, that foundation has crumbled some from the days Matta took OSU to seven straight NCAA Tournaments, having missed The Dance each of the last two seasons.

But the Buckeyes, if not top of mind as a college basketball power, still have enough lingering legitimacy to attract a top coach, who in turn will have a lot to sell to elite high school recruits.

Stevens is a Matta disciple who most doubt would return to the college game, where he gained distinction by leading Butler University to consecutive NCAA championship games.

Four years into his NBA career, Stevens has the No. 1 pick in the draft to build a roster with obvious flaws the Cleveland Cavaliers exposed in a playoff sweep.

OSU has to hope Stevens realizes his path to an NBA championship is blocked for the duration of LeBron James' career in Cleveland.

As for Donovan, his departure from the NBA back to college seems more likely. He's two years in to his tenure in Oklahoma City, where he went to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

One game from reaching the NBA Finals last year, Donovan's team blew a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors.

Several weeks later, Durant bolted for Golden State, making the best regular-season team in NBA history even better. With Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson all in their late 20s, Donovan may be contemplating a prolonged stretch of first- or second-round playoff exits.

That's a recipe for getting fired sooner, not later.

Donovan is financially secure, entering the third year of a five-year, $30-million deal. But Ohio State could match or exceed that salary, if it can get over the ridiculous notion that its basketball coach's salary can't match or approach its football coach's salary.

As for Miller at Arizona, why would he leave a team likely ranked No. 1 in the preseason at a school where basketball is a clear No. 1 to football, which certainly isnt' the case at Ohio State?

Perhaps Miller wants to bolt those accompanying expectations for a start-over situation, given that Arizona fans are getting progressively saltier over failing to get to a Final Four even once in his eight seasons.

The ticklish issues for Miller would be taking over for Matta in the aftermath of OSU firing the most successful coach in school history. Would you take a job you want if your best friend in the profession was fired to create the opening?

Miller would also have to reconcile coming back to the Midwest to coach against his brother, Archie, who's now the head coach at Indiana. That, I would think, would make for some awkward Easter and Christmas dinners around the Miller family table.

Then again, maybe Sean Miller wants his sons to grow up closer to his father, John, who in 35 years as a high school coach in Pennsylvania won 657 games.

But could Archie and Sean's reputation remain as their father described it just prior to this past NCAA Tournament?

"They talk a lot," John Miller told the Dayton Daily News. "When one’s down, the other can lift him and vice versa.”

You can do that when one son coaches at Dayton, where Archie worked before taking over at IU in April, and Sean is at Arizona.

It becomes a different dynamic when Archie is hard at work in Bloomington and Sean is selling OSU's merits to the same recruits in Ohio and Indiana.

Mack succeeded Miller at Xavier when he succeeded Matta. One big difference...Mack is a Xavier graduate. Accepting the OSU job, after Matta did the same 13 years ago, would be setting in stone the admission every Xavier alum resists -- that X is still a feeder program for a big-boy job.

That may already seem obvious given Bob Staak, Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Matta and Miller having bolted when major conference schools came calling.

But it's quite another thing for Mack, a Xavier alum, to do the same, even for twice the money, which Ohio State could swing financially.

Does Mack want leaving Xavier for OSU as his epitaph at his alma mater, where he's reached two Elite Eights? Or does he want to be the first guy ever to take Xavier to the Final Four?

Smith must have a coach hired by the July evaluation period for high school recruits, so he has time. But if that time unfolds with coach after coach turning down interest, or a job offer from OSU, the search for Matta's replacement will have spun out of control.

And if Smith walks to the podium to introduce the next coach and it's not Stevens, Donovan, Mack or Miller, the Ohio State athletic director will have set the program up for failure that makes Matta's 38-29 record the past two seasons look enviable.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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