Four former mid-major conference coaches talk about the differences between coaching in small leagues and power conferences.
This off-season, four coaches made the leap from mid-major leagues to power conferences: Bobby Hurley (Buffalo to Arizona State), Steve Prohm (Murray State to Iowa State), Shaka Smart (VCU to Texas) and Mike White (Louisiana Tech to Florida). On various days last week, as they were wrapping up their regular seasons and preparing for conference tournaments, three of them spoke with SI.com about the transition. (Smart was unavailable, but answered one question on a teleconference Monday.)
The four coaches are in drastically different positions as Selection Sunday approaches. Arizona State (15–16, 5–13) will need to win the Pac-12 tournament to have any chance of making the NCAAs. Florida (18–13, 9–9) will likely need a couple quality wins in the SEC tournament to work its way back into the field, where it had been in late February before a four-game conference losing streak. Iowa State (21–10, 10–8) and Texas (20–11, 11–7), on the other hand, will almost certainly make the Big Dance regardless of what happens in the Big 12 tournament. Here is how each coach is feeling heading into his first major conference tournament.
What has been the biggest difference between last season at the mid-major level and this season?
Bobby Hurley: I just think it’s probably the overall size and athleticism of teams and the talent that’s in the Pac-12. Even this year, it’s been exceptional. Certainly better than other years in this conference in that regard. It’s quality coaching and it’s a big-time atmosphere. There are some places in the MAC that have good homecourt advantages and good crowds. Across the board, it’s a higher level of feel for the game.
Steve Prohm: The biggest difference is the night in, night out. I don’t know if grind is the right word, but you don’t have any nights off. You have to play for 40 minutes every game, or you’ll get beat. I just think the consistency of excellence you have to maintain in this league is what separates it. You’re not just going to out-talent anybody. You gotta be good for 40 minutes home and road. Night in and night out, you just have to be exceptionally strong.
Mike White: The biggest changes were more speaking engagements, more media obligations. I think we’ve had like 30 games on TV, and we’ve only played 30. You can’t go with a stinky suit like I could have in Rustin. I actually have to clean my suits.
Has anything really surprised you in the transition?
BH: The biggest upgrade is the travel and the accessibility of the places we play in the conference. That was a challenge in the MAC (Mid American Conference), and our AD stepped up and did provide money so that we could charter a few select flights, which helped our chances of winning. But the league is very spread out, and we were way out in Buffalo. There were a lot of eight-hour bus trips through difficult conditions with the weather. This year, I haven’t had to face that.
SP: You understand that this level is completely different. Six of the 10 coaches in our league have been to the Final Four. Every coach in our league has won at least one game in the NCAA tournament. Our league is the highest ranked league RPI-wise, I think it’s the highest since 2000. The ranking is ridiculously high. I don’t know if there is really anything surprising. You have to deal with so many different things at this level because there are so many more responsibilities and obligations. That’s one of the biggest adjustments, but I don’t think there are any surprises. You know going in to the situation that you have to have great players and be well prepared and be focused. The biggest thing isn’t a surprise, but from a transition standpoint, it’s just about realizing that night in and night out, you just don’t have any nights off.
MW: I wish I had a good answer. There really haven’t been any big surprises. We knew that this league was really talented, and it is. We knew that everyone in this league would do a great job with preparation, and that’s been confirmed. I’m familiar with the league having played and coached at Ole Miss, so the environment that the Rowdies (Florida's student section) represent, I was familiar with it, and it’s great to be a part of.
Have you changed anything about the way you coach over the course of the season?
SP: One thing I tried to do with this team, given the unique situation with Fred [Hoiberg] leaving in June and a lot of players coming back and the team being very experienced, I didn’t want to change much. I really just incorporated and kept Fred’s offense, 80-90% of it, to where my older guys would feel comfortable with it and understand what we’re doing night in and night out. I think that right now we’re the No. 1 offensive efficiency team in the country, according to kenpom.com. [Editor's note: At the time of the conversation with Prohm, Iowa State was No. 1. It is now No. 2.]
MW: There’s a ton. I learn 10 things a day dealing with this team. We’re playing completely different than we played at Louisiana Tech. I think each coach at each program has got to find the best way for his team to play to be successful. I’m not sure we’ve made all the right decision, but I do know that we’ve had to play differently. We’ve had to become open to considering different ways to practice and different ways to play.
Is there any difference in how you prepare for a mid-major conference tournament and a major conference tournament?
BH: I’m going to take a similar approach because our only chance of getting to the NCAA tournament is to win the conference tournament. That’s how I felt at Buffalo last year, even though we had an RPI ranking of 31. I was told we wouldn’t be in discussion for an at-large bid. I understood the pressure of that. I felt like we had a team that was deserving of playing in the tournament. That put additional pressure on me to make sure that we win the tournament. In the Pac-12, if you’re .500 or better, you’re sitting in a god position if you win a game or two to get an at-large. We’re unfortunately not in that spot with our record in conference play. But as I build the program, that’s part of the attraction of coming to a place like Arizona State. We’d like to have a résumé that doesn’t require an automatic bid
SP: I don’t think you prepare for it any differently. When we head to Kansas City (the site of the Big 12 tournament), this team is back-to-back champions. So our goal is to win this thing and get to 7–0, 8–0, 9–0 over the last three years in Kansas City. But we know we’re going to the NCAA tournament. When you’re coaching at the mid-major level, and three of the four years that I was there, the game came down to the last possession, overtime or a last-second shot. We were 1–2 and a couple fluke things happen. Everything is on the line, as you know. Though I thought we should have gotten an at-large bid last year. Everything is on the line, so the pit in your stomach is so much bigger because it’s do or die, it’s win or go home, because you know that your chance of getting an at-large bid at this level is really, really tough. Here, you’re coaching—and I really haven’t done it yet, so I can’t tell you my emotions—you’re still trying to win and win a championship. Every time you have a chance to win a championship, it’s special. The sweaty palms and the nervous tension you have every possession at that level, though, is really different.
The way your kids feel—our team last year had won 25 in a row and then got beat. [In the championship game] we had a rebound to get the last possession and then threw it out of bounds. Belmont gets one possession, hits a last-second three, and then you have to go in there and talk to your kids, and they don’t know what the future is going to hold, the NCAAs or the NIT. That’s really tough. Whereas, now, we’re looking at it as a way to get our team better. We’re heading to Kansas City to win the Big 12 and get ready for the NCAAs. We know our next couple weeks already.
Shaka Smart: It’s not different. The A-10 got about—I think if you look at the last 3 to 4 years, since VCU has been in—got about four teams a year. We won the tournament last year, but we were an at-large bid the two years before that. I think we got a five-seed the two years before that. So it’s no different.
What would it mean for the program if you get to the NCAA tournament in your first year?
BH: It’s going to be a steep mountain to climb. We’ve dealt with injuries and are shorthanded. It’s the one thing we have to point toward. We hope to be playing the best basketball we can heading into it with the right attitude and approach. We have seniors on their last chance. And we have the opportunity to play in the tournament. We’re going to go all in to do this. We’ve been in a lot of games this year.
SP: I think everybody thought we’d be in—our team had a lot of preseason hype, and deservedly so. I wish we had two or three more wins out there. We lost a couple home games. We last four road games in conference play on the last possession. Six of our nine losses are by five points or less. That makes it tough to where you wish you had a couple more wins. But it’s great to be in the Dance. We’re probably going to be a high seed, which is terrific. We’re going to be remembered this season by how we finished in the NCAAs, not by the peaks and valleys of the regular season. The peaks and valleys of the regular season helped build us and prepare us for the postseason. Hopefully we can make a special run in the NCAA tournament and we will be remembered by that, whether it’s Sweet 16 or Final Four or what. We’re focused on winning each day, each game. But I like our team, and obviously we have some of the best players in the country, led by [senior forward] Georges [Niang].
MW: It would be enormous. We were in a great position a few weeks ago and we squandered some opportunities. To be able to accomplish that would be really big moving forward.