- The NC State job is already open, but insiders insist that this year's college basketball coaching carousel might be the most active in recent memory.
There are fewer than three weeks remaining in the college basketball season, as Selection Sunday looms on March 12 and the NCAA tournament begins with the First Four two days later. The dwindling days mean that speculation season is in full bloom around the sport, as intriguing jobs like NC State and South Florida have already opened. This projects to be a busier than normal year on the coaching carousel, as at least 35 jobs are expected to open from firings alone. As one industry source succinctly put it this week: “It’s going to be bananas.”
Some of that has to do with the inevitable wave of high-profile firings, as vacancies at LSU, Missouri and Illinois have been considered forgone conclusions for months. A high volume of jobs also means reverberations from sitting head coaches leaving for other jobs, especially if projections are correct and multiple high-major coaches make later moves. Names like Indiana’s Tom Crean, Baylor’s Scott Drew, Cal’s Cuonzo Martin and Wichita’s Gregg Marshall have gained significant buzz. “There’s going to be a lot of trickle-down,” said another source. “It’s rare this early in February to know so many jobs open with reasonable certainty.”
Here’s our annual projection of potential job openings with information culled from interviews with coaches, athletic directors, agents and search firms.
NC State: The quality of this job is an existential question among the Wolfpack fan base. The Wolfpack fan base insists it is a great gig. The expected lack of interest in the job from high-end candidates like Xavier’s Chris Mack and Dayton’s Archie Miller hints otherwise. What are the positives? There’s a big fan base, great league and rich history. The list of negatives begins with divisive athletic director Debbie Yow, who is viewed in the industry as being a huge impediment to landing a top-flight coach. Like it often does in college athletics, this search will come down to money and commitment. The savvy play would be throwing the bank at Gregg Marshall, Tom Crean or Ben Howland. But can State afford paying in mid $3-million range? If not, it’s easy to see this search become unwieldy. The two most realistic names may be UNC-Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts and Butler’s Chris Holtmann.
Clemson: There’s no great urgency to get rid of Brad Brownell, who is well regarded in the athletic department. There’s a genuine desire to keep him and allow him to recruit to Clemson’s $63 million facility upgrade, which opened in September. That patience could wane if Clemson continues to scuffle down the stretch, as they’ve lost five of six and are just 4–11 in ACC play. Brownell is in year seven at Clemson, and he’s 121–100. This should mark the sixth consecutive season without and NCAA tournament bid, which is why we’re having this conversation. A variable here could be the availability of VCU’s Will Wade, a Clemson alum thriving in Richmond. (Keatts would be a likely target, along with Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey).
Chance he’s fired: 35%
Illinois: Barring a significant run in the Big Ten tournament, John Groce is not coming back. This means a pressure-packed hire for new athletic director Josh Whitman, who is already perceived as being 0–1 after hiring Lovie Smith as the Illini’s football coach this March. Illinois fans and administrators need realistic expectations. In 2012, Illinois wanted Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart and neither sniffed the job. Expect Cal’s Cuonzo Martin to be a top target, but the Illini may not be his only suitor. Is Illinois alluring enough to move a Power 5 coach like Mississippi State’s Ben Howland or Baylor’s Scott Drew? Gregg Marshall’s name will inevitably arise, as it does with nearly every Power 5 opening. Illinois State’s Dan Muller has impressed and could emerge as a name, especially if the Redbirds (24–5, 16–1) can reach the NCAA tournament.
Chance he’s fired: 100%
Indiana There’s an industry-wide expectation this job will open this this year. Will Indiana fire Crean? Or will he find a safe landing elsewhere? That’s the drama. (It costs him nothing to leave, contractually.) But the bottom line is it would be an upset if there’s not a new coach on the sideline in Bloomington next year.
The most logical fits here are Chris Mack and Archie Miller, both of whom have been dominant in the region. Mack is on his way to his seventh NCAA tournament, including three Sweet 16 appearances—a remarkable run that’s often doesn’t get deserved attention. Miller is on his way to his fourth straight NCAA appearance, including an Elite Eight run in 2014.
Steve Alford, a former Indiana star, would cost $7.8 million to buy out prior to April 30. (The figure drops to $5.2 million after that). Considering Alford gave a year back on his contract last year and isn’t considered an ideal fit in Westwood, perhaps UCLA would be willing to negotiate if Alford wants out. UCLA, after all, wants a coach who wants to be at UCLA. Indiana projects as the best job on the open market this season, which helps the Hoosiers. That may not be the case in upcoming years. Butler’s Chris Holtmann is another solid name here. Marshall doesn’t seem like a good fit. Tony Bennett would fit the culture, but he doesn’t appear likely to leave Virginia. If Crean vacates, Indiana’s coaching search would dictate the market.
Chance the job will open: 80%
Ohio State: It’s hard to imagine Ohio State officials firing Thad Matta, who has led a golden era of Buckeye basketball. He led Ohio State to the 2007 title game and 2012 Final Four, has won five regular season Big Ten titles and 73% of his games in 13 seasons. Matta is only 49, but he’s dealt with significant back issues for more than a decade. The current reality is that the attendance is dwindling, Ohio State is ahead of only Rutgers in the Big Ten and facing its second straight season with no NCAA tournament. (Matta had reached it nine of the prior 10 seasons, winning the NIT in the year the Buckeyes missed).
Matta has earned the right to win his way out of this slump. Consider this a fluid situation that will likely result with Matta facing a high-pressure 2017–18 season. There are too many good feelings on both sides for this to end ugly. If a departure were to happen, it would likely end with Matta in some sort of role in the athletic department. Just doesn’t feel like that’s coming this year.
Chance the job will open: 10%
Penn State: Pat Chambers is headed toward a sixth consecutive season without an NCAA appearance. It’s rare a Power 5 coach lasts that long without facing some heat for his job. He’s steadied Penn State into a mediocre Big Ten team, and his fate will be tied more to administrative patience than anything else. Penn State doesn’t have a senior on its roster, which means its returning core should be NCAA-worthy next season. Do administrators there risk firing Chambers and losing a core of returning young talent to transfer? (Leading scorers Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens are freshmen.) That seems unlikely. Chambers has two years left on his deal. Feels like 2018 will be a tournament-or-bust scenario for Chambers. With Penn State at 14–14, a finish above .500 would help Chambers this year.
Chance he’s fired: 25%
Washington: This is the most fascinating conundrum of the coaching cycle. Romar is beloved at UW, and likability should never be underestimated in difficult coaching decisions. He’s won 60% of his games there, reached six NCAA Tournaments and won two Pac-12 regular season titles. The issue is that this will be the sixth straight year without an NCAA tournament bid, and this edition of the Huskies' play with an uncommon defensive ambivalence. (They are No. 252 in kenpom.com adjusted defensive efficiency.)
The Huskies (9–18) are terrible despite having presumed No. 1 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz. (Washington unexpectedly lost two first-round picks last year, Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray.) The conundrum is that Romar has another potential No. 1 pick in Michael Porter Jr., who projects as a top 2018 NBA draft pick. (Porter’s father is on Romar’s staff, and Porter Jr. is also Romar’s godson). Also, Porter Jr. is the centerpiece of a five-member Top 5 class, which according to 247 Sports is ranked ahead of Duke and Texas.
Do you risk Romar squandering another elite talent and not reaching the NCAAs for the seventh consecutive year? Or do you fire him, pay him $3.2 million and hand a new coach a gutted roster after the recruits scatter? That would commence a lengthy rebuild. No easy answer there. The feeling right now is Washington fires Romar, as the apathy is insurmountable. But this may come down to money, and we’ve seen recently Pac-12 schools having less of it than others thanks to the lack of a lucrative cable network. (The Oregon and Cal football hires come to mind).
There are no obvious names for Washington, either. Mark Few isn’t leaving Gonzaga. There’s a drop-off to St. Mary’s Randy Bennett and Boise State’s Leon Rice. Could less attention on the West coast tempt Crean? Could a return to the Pac-12 entice Howland?
Chance he’s fired: 75%
Missouri: The SEC projects to have the most potential movement of any league, and the cash-rich conference could end up luring some big names. Let’s start in Columbia, where the Kim Anderson (26–64) era is free falling to a merciful end with Missouri’s 7–20 season.
Anderson’s hire is a reminder that sentimental picks—he’s an alum and former assistant—often aren’t the most functional ones. Modern college basketball is much more about navigating complicated recruiting and transfer markets than it is actually coaching the game.
Anderson’s success at Division II Central Missouri didn’t translate because he hired a poor staff and was overmatched in the recruiting environment. Martin will be a top target, as it will interesting to see if both Illinois and Missouri make plays for him. Expect Missouri, which has endured the NCAA issues of Frank Haith and three single-digit win seasons under Anderson, to find a coach with a clean reputation and high-end head coaching experience. That likely won’t be Romar, who will inevitably be linked to the job because Porter Sr. coached on the women’s team and has two daughters on the team. This could end up as a spot for a soft landing for Crean. Look for an experienced option here with strong name recognition.
Chance he’s fired: 100%
LSU: After Johnny Jones wasted Ben Simmons’s college career during last year’s 19–14 season, his coaching demise was inevitable. Who can forget the humiliating 71–38 SEC tournament loss to Texas A&M? Jones reinforced that failure this season, as LSU (9–18) has tied a school record by losing 14 consecutive games by an average of 16.7 points. Consider keeping Jones for this season another blunder on the résumé of athletic director Joe Alleva. He hired Jones and continues to make head-scratching decisions at an alarming rate. LSU has the money to go after a big fish, and someone like Scott Drew from Baylor or Martin could be among the names considering a high-major lateral move. Second-tier names that could emerge here are Kermit Davis from Middle Tennessee, Scott Cross from UT-Arlington, Steve Forbes from East Tennessee and Eric Konkol from Louisiana Tech.
Chance he’s fired: 100%
Georgia: Mark Fox has a strong reputation as a tactician, and in his eight seasons at Georgia he has a respectable 141–115 record. He’s also well liked on campus and in the athletic department. But just two NCAA bids may end up being his undoing, as Fox hasn’t been able to find consistent traction in a weak SEC. Georgia is 15–12 this season and just 6–8 in league play. The absence of a push in the SEC tournament could mean the end for Fox. He has a strong enough reputation that he could attempt to slide out laterally. The general industry expectation is that this job will open.
Athletic director Greg McGarity would be wise to make sure he has a better candidate lined up in advance, as there’s a chance with a bad search they could end up with a downgrade. (Think about how Mississippi State lined up Ben Howland before firing Rick Ray). A name like Crean would be attractive here to energize the fan base. McGarity is familiar with Chattanooga’s Matt McCall, as they overlapped at Florida. Georgia doesn’t have the juice to lure Mack, Miller or Wade. The competition among the flurry of SEC jobs will be fascinating.
Chance he’s fired: 60%
Arkansas: The Arkansas basketball job is comparable to the Nebraska football job. The standards and expectations are rooted in a different era, and rekindling the type of winning the fan base craves is extremely difficult. Arkansas hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 1996. Mike Anderson needs to reach the NCAA tournament to be safe here, a prospect that appears a lot safer as the Razorbacks are projected around a No. 9 seed after winning four straight.
Some of Anderson’s leverage comes with his recruiting class for 2018, which is ranked No. 1 nationally. (That’s in part based on volume, because Arkansas has four commitments.) Anderson has reached just one NCAA tournament in his first five years. That’s not enough for a place like Arkansas, which fired Stan Heath for losing in the first round in consecutive years. But Anderson’s late push here should help him stick around.
Chance he’s fired: 25%
Georgetown: There’s little chance John Thompson III gets fired, especially because the program is now housed in the John Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center. The Hoyas project to miss their third NCAA tournament in four seasons. (Craig Esherick missed three in a row when he got fired in 2004). For now, Georgetown appears comfortable with its recent run of national irrelevance. (This Washington Post column from Barry Svrluga did a nice job illustrating the apathy around the program).
The Hoyas have won two NCAA tournament games since the 2007 Final Four. Georgetown (14–14, 5–10) is in second-to-last place in the Big East, ahead of only DePaul. It may have bottomed out Wednesday night losing to the Blue Demons at home, with DePaul point guard Billy Garrett claiming to The Hoya: “We got a sense that they kinda didn't wanna play that hard.” Another down year in 2017–18 will get people talking around Washington D.C. If Villanova can be nationally dominant, it’s reasonable to expect Georgetown to be relevant for something other than losing.
Chances he’s fired: 5%
USF: The NCAA issues that Orlando Antigua left behind at USF are not expected to impact the quality of candidate the Bulls should be able to lure. This job has been very quiet, which has led some in the industry to speculate that athletic director Mark Harlan has already found his coach. There’s a chance of a lateral name popping up here as well. Minnesota’s Richard Pitino is one possibility, along with Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard and former Alabama coach Anthony Grant. Monmouth’s King Rice, Florida Gulf Coast’s Joe Dooley, Chattanooga’s McCall and Forbes could all fit. Miami assistant Chris Caputo makes sense if the school attempts the high-major assistant route again.
East Carolina: Jeff Lebo has gone 19 seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance, a streak than spans time at Tennessee Tech, Chattanooga, Auburn and the last seven years at East Carolina. That’s a spectacular statistic in modern college basketball, to go four jobs and nearly two decades without an NCAA appearance. Lebo is out indefinitely with hip surgery, which makes evaluating this drab Pirates season difficult. The Pirates are 13–15 and 5–10 in league play. This is year seven for Lebo in Greenville. He’d be owed about $2 million over the four years remaining in his contract, a large amount for an AAC school. With ECU having upgraded his facilities and Lebo not coaching since January, giving him an extra year appears more likely than not.
Chance he’s fired: 30%
George Washington: There’s an element of unknown here, as the school just announced a new president in January. Thomas LeBlanc arrives from Miami and will quickly have to make a decision on interim coach Maurice Joseph. The feel around the Atlantic 10 is that Joseph has done a solid job in the difficult position of replacing Mike Lonergan after his dismissal in September. Joseph, 31, has led GW to a 14–13 season and a 6–8 mark in the league. Is that enough to earn the job? Hard to say. Princeton’s Mitch Henderson could emerge as an intriguing name. Caputo’s name will be logical here because of the president’s ties to Miami and his success recruiting at George Mason. Villanova associate head coach Baker Dunleavy, who turned down jobs to stay with Jay Wright last year, is a potential target. UMBC’s Ryan Odom has Retrievers 17–10 this season and went 21–10 at Lenoir-Rhyne last year. And FGCU’s Dooley is a GW alumnus.
Chances the interim tag is removed: 80%
UMass: The Minutemen have sputtered to a 3–11 Atlantic 10 record, and coach Derek Kellogg needs a strong four-game closing stretch and a run in the Atlantic 10 tournament to salvage his job. Kellogg is a beloved alumnus and former start point guard, but he’s reached just one NCAA tournament in his nine seasons in Amherst. He’s facing a crucial three weeks, as UMass has flashed enough talent to beat Dayton but also lost by 30 to last-place Duquesne. There’s a young roster that needs to show life and competitiveness for Kellogg to stick around and coach them next year. (Just imagine Calipari’s rant if Kellogg is fired.) Expectations have risen in Amherst with a newly opened $22 million practice facility. Vermont’s John Becker would be a strong name here, as he’s won 20 games in all six of his seasons there. Towson’s Pat Skerry has strong New England ties and Northeastern’s Bill Coen may be the most respected coach in New England.
Chance he’s fired: 65%
Duquesne: The Dukes have lost 10 of 11 and coach Jim Ferry is staring at his fifth straight year without an NCAA bid. This is a ridiculously difficult job, and Ferry went 17–17 last year. But at 10–18 and not being competitive in the league, this could end up being Ferry’s last go-round in Pittsburgh. The loss of graduate transfer L.G. Gill hurt Ferry, as Gill played 30 minutes per game and averaged 10.1 points last year as a junior. This year at Maryland, he’s averaging 12 minutes and scoring 3.4 points. That transfer appeared to work out poorly for both sides. Ferry is 60–92 overall, which makes it hard to see the school sticking with him for another season. Good luck finding a qualified coach eager to replace him, as this is the scariest non-St. Bonaventure job in the Atlantic 10.
Chance he’s fired: 90%