UW's Ryan, OSU's Matta only know winning
MADISON, Wis. — The percentages have shifted slightly from game to game, with two men jockeying for position as the winningest coach in Big Ten men's basketball history. One week, Ohio State coach Thad Matta holds the honor. The next, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan takes the title.
But what has made each man successful in his respective coaching career is that neither wastes his days worrying about the outcome. It's the process of improving that matters most, and that has allowed both coaches to remain successful and at the top of their games for years.
The two men have combined for a total of 21 years coaching in the Big Ten — Ryan 12 and Matta nine. And they are the only men to have won more than 70 percent of their conference games in the Big Ten.
Ryan and Matta will put their conference records on the line against each other when No. 20 Wisconsin (17-8, 8-4) plays host to No. 13 Ohio State (18-6, 8-4) at noon CT Sunday. The winner will leave with the best winning percentage of any Big Ten coach in conference games.
As it stands, Ryan is 140-58 in the Big Ten (.707 winning percentage), while Matta's mark is 106-44 (.706). Former Indiana coach Bob Knight ranks third all-time in Big Ten winning percentage (.700), going 353-151, and Michigan State's Tom Izzo is fourth (.691), at 206-92.
Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard, who has worked under Ryan and against Matta for years, said the two men have succeeded by keeping things simple.
"I think with Thad, you never see him too high or too low," Gard said. "Whether they take an L or get a W, he's still kind of got the same smile on his face ... He keeps things in perspective. I think that's the biggest thing, and that's what has made both coaches so successful for so long. So consistent that you don't get too ratcheted up when things go well and you don't go in the bunker when things aren't going well."
Everywhere Ryan has gone as a college coach, he has won games. He won 82.3 percent of them at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and then turned a moribund UW-Milwaukee program into a team that played above .500 basketball.
At Wisconsin, he has guided the Badgers to 11 consecutive NCAA Tournaments and never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten.
Matta, meanwhile, has won at each stop as a head coach just like Ryan, working his way up from the lower levels of the sport. In one year at Butler (2000-01), Matta's Bulldogs went 24-8, won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
He won 26 games in all three seasons he coached at Xavier and reached the NCAA Tournament every year. Ohio State has won or earned a share of first in the Big Ten the past three seasons and reached four straight NCAA Tournaments. During Matta's nine-year run there, the Buckeyes have won at least 30 games in three different seasons.
Each coach expressed a mutual admiration this week for what the other has accomplished.
"He's intense," Ryan said of Matta. "He's a ball coach. He's not worried about the marketing of himself. I can relate to him very easily — his love of the game, his passion for the game, the way he grew up playing the game and inspecting the game."
Matta said he was impressed by the way Ryan made subtle changes to his personnel over the years at Wisconsin while maintaining a certain style of play that has withstood the test of time. The Badgers milk the shot clock on offense, play solid defense and generally drive opponents batty by making them play their slowdown pace.
"I think Bo is tremendous," Matta said. "He has his system. It's funny watching kind of how things have changed in the nine years I've been in this league, even dating back to when he was at Milwaukee. When I was at Xavier, we actually played him when he was at Wisconsin.
"Looking at what he's done there and how he's done it, it's obviously the right way. As you prepare for a team you watch and say, ‘There's a lot of similarities in how they do these things.' Hopefully we are a little bit similar."
Yes, the winner on Sunday will hold the title of winningest Big Ten coach in history for another week, but neither will care about such a distinction. A month remains until the Big Ten Tournament begins in Chicago, and Ryan and Matta's focus won't be on themselves. It will be about maximizing their team's ability in time to make a deep postseason run.
As always, it will be about the process of improving.
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