Sampson, Kent lead list of coaches returning from exile
In a little more than two weeks, college basketball teams will start practice for the 2014-15 season. As usual, some of the coaches running those practices won’t be in the same place they were last year. In a few cases, that place wasn’t the lead chair for a college program, or any sideline chair anywhere for that matter.
Bruce Pearl, for instance, is making his much-publicized return to the college ranks at Auburn after working in television, where he waited out an NCAA penalty. But there are a few other notable names reemerging from in and out of the college game. Here’s a look at five such coaches, presented in alphabetical order, who are back on the court:
Mike Dunlap, Loyola Marymount. Dunlap's only experience running a Division I program came when he oversaw day-to-day operations at St. John's in 2011-12 while head coach Steve Lavin was recovering from prostate cancer surgery. He was hired as the head coach of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats for the 2012-13 season, but lasted just one year before being fired. He spent 2013-14 off the sideline but was hired last March at Loyola Marymount, his alma mater.
Only one of last year's top four scorers -- sophomore guard Evan Payne -- returns for the Lions this fall. But that could allow Dunlap to focus on a longer-term strategy, as his roster features eight freshmen or sophomores.
Ernie Kent, Washington State. The 59-year-old Kent has been out of college basketball since 2010, when his 13-year tenure at Oregon, in which he won 57.5 percent of his games, spiraled to a close. Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, who was Kent’s boss at Oregon for a time, brought him on to take one of the most difficult jobs in the Pac-12: turning the Cougars, who have made just two NCAA tournament appearances since 1995, into consistent winners.
Leading scorer DaVonte Lacy (19.4 ppg) returns, as do five other players who saw action in 30 or more games last season. But there is likely to be little help from the incoming recruiting class. Only one of those four freshmen, guard Jackie Davis, received any sort of star rating from Rivals.com, and he was a three-star. So it won't be easy for Kent to improve a team that went 10-21 last year and 3-15 in the Pac-12, especially in that increasingly formidable conference.
Russ Pennell, Central Arkansas. The 53-year-old Pennell has traversed a winding path in his coaching career. After spending more than a decade as an assistant elsewhere, he was hired in May 2008 as an assistant at Arizona and then became the interim head coach when Lute Olson announced his surprise retirement that October. Pennell led the Wildcats through the turmoil and to the Sweet 16 in '09, but he was passed over for the permanent job in favor of then-Xavier coach Sean Miller. That left Pennell to toil at Division II Grand Canyon State for four seasons, where he won 62 percent of his games but resigned in 2013 as former NBA All-Star Dan Majerle took over the program’s ascent to Division I.
A brief stint as the head coach of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury followed before Pennell was hired at Central Arkansas last March. He'll have to completely overhaul a program that won eight games last season. Gone are the top four scorers from 2013-14 and nine of the 10 players who played in 20 or more games; sophomore forward Ethan Lee, who averaged 4.3 points and 16.0 minutes per game, is the lone returner from that latter group.
Kelvin Sampson, Houston. Sampson has taken three teams to the NCAA tournament -- Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana -- but he was forced to resign as the Hoosiers head coach in 2008 due to NCAA rules violations for impermissible phone calls. Tagged with a five-year show-cause penalty, Sampson spent the next six years as an NBA assistant, building momentum and building back credibility. He seemed to be in line for a job manning a pro franchise, but instead he returned to the college level at Houston, where the job seems to offer both promise and some stiff early challenges.
Sampson has built-in familiarity with the area after serving as a Houston Rockets assistant since 2011. He has a rich in-state talent pool from which to draw; the state of Texas put seven players in the Rivals.com top 100 for the Class of 2014 and has nine players in the top 100 for the Class of 2015. But the advantage of inheriting a loaded roster vanished almost immediately when the top two returning scorers, TaShawn Thomas and Danuel House, decided to transfer soon after Sampson’s arrival. Sampson brought in six junior college transfers among nine newcomers to the roster, a fairly strong sign he’s eyeing a hasty rebuild.
Sampson has decent reason to take that path. Connecticut and Memphis will be difficult to dislodge atop the American Athletic Conference, but with Louisville’s departure for the ACC and SMU’s rise hitting a snag with top prospect Emmanuel Mudiay’s decision to play in China, it’s not unreasonable to believe Sampson can have Houston contending in the league sooner rather than later.
Doc Sadler, Southern Miss. Sadler, 54, won 47 games in two years at UTEP before taking a difficult Nebraska job in 2006 and failing to finish better than seventh in either the Big 12 (five years) or Big Ten (one year). He had a quick two-year recovery period, serving as a director of basketball operations at Kansas and then as an assistant to Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State last season.
Though the Eagles won 29 games a year ago under Donnie Tyndall, who left to take over at Tennessee, Sadler will have to do some rehab in the new gig. Southern Miss lost its top three scorers – and the only players who averaged in double-figures – to graduation. He signed junior college guard Dallas Anglin and high school guard Kevin Holland in May; Anglin made second-team all-region for the College of Southern Idaho, and Holland was a two-star prospect per Rivals.com. Neither is likely to drive Southern Miss to great heights in Year 1 of Sadler’s tenure.