Thursday, March 14, 2002

Matta made transition look easy

        DALLAS — Thad Matta hit the ground gliding. His first steps at Xavier have been so smooth and so swift that you'd almost think the guy showed up on a skateboard.

        Matta has brought change to Musketeer basketball while maintaining continuity, making a good thing better without any of the upheaval usually associated with new management. He has made a tricky transition seem a trifle, turning Skip Prosser's tasty leftovers into a gourmet meal.

Coach Thad Matta with Lionel Chalmers.
(AP photo)
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        He has made the season appear seamless, as if these Muskies were cut carefully from a single bolt of cloth and not stitched together from the contrasting styles of different coaches. No small feat, that.

“We were just talking about it at lunch the other day,” said junior forward David West, the All-American. “We were all in love with our other coaches, and Coach Matta came in and of course you're a little skeptical. We lost some players and we have a new coach. The season was really setting up for us to be (about) 19-11. But he didn't allow it. And we didn't allow it.”

        The Muskies enter the NCAA Tournament 25-5, nationally ranked and deeply dangerous because Thad Matta took Prosser's pieces and solved a puzzle. He proved that a first-year coach need not leave his personal stamp on every situation; that he could leave well enough alone; that he could implement a change in philosophy without alienating accomplished players.

Right man for job

        A lot of coaches might have overplayed the hand Matta was dealt. Others would have been terrified of tinkering with a team that included David West. Matta found the middle ground and made it lush, developing more diligent defense and less frenetic full-court play.

        “We weren't looking to produce a shock to the players, because we had had success,” Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski said.“You wanted somebody who had the ability to bring the guys together and not be so inflexible that it wouldn't be a good mix. Thad's been just what the doctor ordered.”

        Prescribing the right coach for a school's only profitable athletic program is inherently a high-risk proposition. Given the players Xavier had returning, Bobinski's margin for error was no wider than a wasp's waist. Whoever he hired would have been expected to produce immediate results, to exploit West's interior dominance and polish Romain Sato's perimeter game — to win and win big.

        Thad Matta had been a head coach for only one year when he interviewed for the position, but Bobinski was immediately struck by his seasoning. Xavier's players proved a slightly harder sell.

        “I remember calling something out to the guys during the (Nov. 24) Missouri game and they're looking at me like, "What is this guy talking about?'” Matta recalled. “And I'm looking at them like, "What are they doing?'

        “It's always tough for players to make changes. We put everything in (during preseason practice), and then we took a lot of things out as we got to know our team better.”

        When the Crosstown Shootout ended in a Cincinnati stampede, some Xavier fans wondered whether Matta could match up X-for-O with the Bearcats' Bob Huggins. But that loss forced the Musketeers to face some of their defensive shortcomings and was followed by a 12-game winning streak.

        Thad Matta hit his stride when a lot of coaches could have stumbled. He has made it look a lot easier than it is.

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