Thad Hopes to Win When it Mattas Most: in March
By Robert Hill
Conduct an autopsy on the Skip Prosser era and you’ll find the remains of a hale and hearty program. During his seven years as coach of the men’s basketball team, the Musketeers won 20 or more games six times, beat Cincinnati four times and graduated every senior. The team moved to a better conference, a better arena and, one could argue, a higher plane in the nation’s sporting consciousness. Prosser, a high-profile ambassador for the program and the University, was, in many ways, the ideal coach for this institution.
What he didn’t do, and what left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans—as well as a smudge on his résumé—is win enough games in March. Thad Matta, Prosser’s successor and a head coach for one season, has already won as many NCAA Tournament games as Prosser did in eight seasons at Loyola and Xavier—one.
Matta, who on May 3 became the 15th coach in school history, led Butler University to 24 wins last season, the final coming against Wake Forest, the school Prosser now coaches. Butler opened plenty of eyes by leading Wake 43-10 at halftime of that first round NCAA Tournament game. Xavier’s only NCAA victory in the last nine seasons was an 80-68 defeat of Vanderbilt in 1997.
If future results come even close to equaling the fanfare accompanying his arrival, Matta will be a smashing success. President Mike Graham, S.J., calls him “the best young basketball coach in the country.” In hiring Matta, “we had an opportunity to truly catch a rising star,” adds athletic director Mike Bobinski. “I believe this gentleman, over time, will take our program to places that we have not been. He knows nothing but success. In the last seven years, he’s been to six NCAAs and one NIT with different coaches and different places and one of his own making. To me, there’s no substitute for knowing what it takes to win. I like someone who smells like a winner. The guy exudes success and winning.”
Matta, 33 and the ninth-youngest coach in Division I, has high expectations for himself and the program. His goal for next year: reach the Sweet Sixteen. “The bar at Xavier is set very high and I look forward to moving it even higher,” he says.
He inherits a team that, on paper, should find a spot among next season’s top 25. His chief weapons include Atlantic 10 Conference player-of-the-year David West, three-year starter Kevin Frey, and guards Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato. He also has returning guards David Young and Alvin Brown, what appears to be a talented trio of incoming freshmen, and a tougher schedule. Non-conference opponents include Purdue, Wisconsin, Creighton, Kent State and, of course, crosstown rival Cincinnati.
Matta, who may go deeper into his bench than Prosser typically did, wants the Musketeers to have “an attacking mentality” on offense. He’d like the team to run, but he also wants to make sure West has ample opportunities to score, something that didn’t occur down the stretch of several losses last season.
Matta also wants the Musketeers to be prudent in their shot selection. “It’s important, as I told Lionel Chalmers, to know the difference between a good shot and a quick shot. He informed me he knew exactly what that meant.”
Matta’s first talk with the team included a forecast: “I told them, ‘I guarantee you one thing, we will be the hardest-playing team in the country next year.’ When people look for a word to describe Xavier basketball, I told them it would be ‘toughness.’ ”