Coaching grades: Which programs made the best hires this off-season?
- Several programs made strong hires this off-season, while others may come to regret the changes in leadership they made. Sports Illustrated hands out grades for every move.
The carousel, we believe, has ceased to spin. The college basketball teams that needed head coaches this off-season have them. And now comes the time to grade the moves and declare who passed admirably and who, if anyone, failed miserably in their searches for fresh leadership.
This is as much a reflection of Indiana’s process as it is landing on Archie Miller. It doesn’t appear that athletic director Fred Glass overcomplicated things in this year’s landmark hire. If tires were kicked on dream-scenario candidates, they were kicked relatively quietly and quickly before Indiana settled on a very sensible choice. Miller won 68.8% of his games at Dayton and took the Flyers to four straight NCAA tournaments. Let’s not pretend that Miller recruiting at an elite level is a sure thing. And we’ll always wonder what might have happened if the Oklahoma City Thunder’s run didn’t extend into late April and Billy Donovan became a more viable option. But that’s moot. Indiana didn’t delude itself into a protracted, embarrassing search, and we can be very optimistic about the guy it landed in the end.
The bargain for cutting ties with the Thompson name was hiring a guy with direct ties to the Thompson name, a coach with zero experience leading a college program and zero experience navigating the murky waters of talent acquisition, especially in the Washington, D.C. area. Not great. But if Patrick Ewing was indeed on his way to becoming an NBA head coach, then he should know how to put a decent game plan together. And, presumably, he’s a figure who can manage and/or stand up to the looming presence of Big John. The last two items are pluses that shouldn’t be minimized, though they’re not worth much if a guy more or less unfamiliar with college basketball players can’t recruit and manage those players.
New Mexico: B
Paul Weir won 28 games in his lone season as New Mexico State’s head coach, and then the program 225 miles up the road stole him away. But he’s worked in the state since 2007. Nothing wrong with casting an eye down Interstate 25 and settling on someone who knows the terrain. The hire doesn’t blow anyone away. But that may not have been a possible outcome anyway. And Weir won’t be surprised by any obstacles to winning in this corner of the college basketball universe.
Josh Whitman realized exactly where his program fit into the coach search dynamic once a job opened down the road in Bloomington, Ind., and credit Illinois’s athletic director for acting decisively as a result. He poked around at Monty Williams and then landed on Brad Underwood, who can’t be viewed as a consolation prize, given Williams’ lack of college coaching experience. Underwood will deploy a brand of basketball that should stoke the stultified Illini fan base, but finding players to execute it is a different matter. Underwood unapologetically hired talent-getters by retaining Jamall Walker and bringing Orlando Antigua aboard. This sent a clear-cut message that Illinois will be unafraid to enter the Thunderdome that is Chicago high school recruiting (And all Thunderdomes elsewhere, for that matter). It’s less clear that Illinois is any more likely to beat out bigger brand names for that talent.
San Diego State: C
How much credit can you give a school for following a set succession plan? Brian Dutcher was a coach-in-waiting. Steve Fisher retired. Thus Dutcher’s wait ended. He’s a first-time head coach at 57 years old, but he should know what works and what doesn’t at a program that needs a jolt after successive seasons without a tourney bid. San Diego State followed the contract to find its new coach. Ho-hum.
Will Wade will be a competent basketball coach, which means the 34-year-old is a decided upgrade in Baton Rouge. LSU likely did the right thing by taking a calculated risk on a guy with four years of head coaching experience and virtually no track record recruiting at the major-conference level. But, hey, that’s what assistants are for. It’s easier to see why LSU would want Wade than it is to understand why Wade would leave VCU in such a hurry, but he should be able to get the Tigers to the NCAAs in short order, and that should be enough for the school at this stage.
Mike Hopkins appears to be a fascinating human. As evidenced by a recent story from Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bishop, he will not fail at Washington for lack of energy or ideas. But the West Coast guy hasn’t been a West Coast guy since he left high school. There are a lot of inroads to be made here on every level and a lot of unknowns regarding how Hopkins will run a program of his own, even if he was responsible for a great deal as Jim Boeheim’s top lieutenant at Syracuse. The Huskies should be a really good Pac-12 team just about every year. Banking on Hopkins to extract the most from the program’s potential…Well, no hire is a sure thing, but this seems a little less of a sure thing than others.
NC State: B+
No delusions of grandeur here, or at least none that got in the way of doing the right thing in the search. NC State didn’t get stuck on bigger names and miss on a chance to nab an up-and-coming Rick Pitino protégé in its backyard. Keatts won 72% of his games in three years at UNC Wilmington, making the tourney in the second and third seasons. The school did well to get the guy who is probably hungry to make his name on the big stage, and if the roster picks up that attitude by osmosis, then NC State will have the right formula for holding its own against its monolithic neighbors and the rest of the ACC. It almost doesn’t matter if it works or not. This was the way for the Wolfpack to go.
It would be surprising if Wyking Jones lasted more than two or three seasons in Berkeley. He may be effectively set up to fail, given the roster attrition and the general difficulty of constructing a winning team at Cal in the first place. That’s a real shame. If the administration demonstrates patience and at least gives Jones the chance to build something and coach through growing pains, super. Hopefully that happens. At the moment, it looks like a hire borne out of complacency and disinterest.
Cuonzo Martin was the guy Missouri needed to hire to get good players to come to campus and Cuonzo Martin is also the guy who has coached in exactly two NCAA tournaments in his nine years as a head coach. This is the dilemma of Cuonzo Martin. If there’s someone on his staff that can draw up a decent offense, then the Tigers should have a good solution on hand. We’ve seen that NBA talent on the roster doesn’t always beget favorable results. Why would we be exceedingly optimistic about Michael Porter, Jr. showing up in Columbia when we saw this movie before, when it was titled Ben Simmons in Baton Rouge or Markelle Fultz in Seattle? But it can’t get worse at Missouri, so the recruit-and-take-your-chances approach is probably as good as any at this point.
It may be that Dayton is now inoculated against a significant backslide, given how consistent the program has been as an Atlantic 10 contender and a threat to win NCAA tournament games. As long as a halfway decent head coach is on hand, the floor may not be too low. Anthony Grant should be able to maintain, and it may be that he’s intensely invested in success at his alma mater. But it’s unclear that he can take the program to new heights after lots of wins at VCU and then just one tourney appearance in six years at Alabama. Dayton is probably always going to be fine, but fine may not seem all that exciting anymore.
Oklahoma State: D-
After virtually ensuring that Underwood would leave as soon as possible by basically insulting him twice in contract dealings, the Cowboys promoted a 35-year-old Underwood assistant with zero head coaching experience. Let’s hope that the school affords Mike Boynton Jr. the leeway to grow into the gig. But betting on patience from a major-conference program is often foolish.
It’s pretty clear that athletic director Ed McLaughlin was not thrilled that Wade bolted after two seasons. Read part of McLaughlin’s official statement following Wade jetting to LSU: “We met all of Will’s requests.” As irked as he plainly was, it did not get in the way of a decisive answer to the dilemma. After thriving as the head coach of nearby Randolph-Macon (DIII), Mike Rhoades spent five years as a VCU assistant, from 2009-14. The 44-year-old took Rice from 12 wins in his first season to 23 wins by his third season. In pursuit of a person best suited to the place, the school couldn’t have located a better option.
George Washington: B-
George Washington rewarded Maurice Joseph for working through a potentially toxic scenario, and that’s to be applauded. Joseph directed the program to a 20-win season as an interim coach after Mike Lonergan was fired following reports of player abuse and misconduct. But a laudable move doesn’t guarantee future success. Joseph still will be just 32 when the 2017-18 season begins and he has coached nowhere else but George Washington. Erring on the side of stability is understandable, all things considered, and Joseph may have earned some benefit of the doubt. But there’s no shortage of doubt nonetheless.
South Florida: C-
Brian Gregory won 46.9% of his games at Georgia Tech. His teams never posted a winning season in the ACC. You’d hope coaching at South Florida is more akin, maybe, to coaching at Dayton, where Gregory won 64.7% of his games—or at least you hope that if you’re South Florida. The Bulls probably will be solid. They’ll be OK. In an AAC that now features Wichita State, that isn’t inspiring.
Tough to know what to make of this one. Pat Kelsey reneged on an agreement to coach the Minutemen, electing to return to Winthrop. That was characterized as a Pat Kelsey issue, not a Massachusetts issue. Whatever the semantics, it left the school in an unenviable position of restarting a search. Matt McCall is just 35 and maybe he’s as good as you can do when you’re quite publicly not hiring the guy you actually wanted in the first place. But McCall’s win total dropped from 29 to 19 in his two seasons at Chattanooga.