- The major hires of the 2018 college basketball offseason have been made. Which programs have positioned themselves well for next winter and beyond?
The college basketball coaching carousel may not have come to a complete halt yet, but all of the biggest jobs that opened this year have been filled. Barring an unexpected firing along the lines of Thad Matta’s Ohio State exit last June, there shouldn’t be any more major vacancies, particularly now that Jay Wright appears set on staying at Villanova after winning his second national championship in three seasons earlier this month.
The peril of making quick judgments on coaching hires should be self-evident; it’ll take a few years before we know which of these moves pan out and which ones utterly flop. With that disclaimer duly noted, here are SI.com’s grades for every coaching change in the six high-major conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC), plus two other prominent programs outside of that group.
Out: Kevin Ollie
In: Dan Hurley
The Huskies opted to make a change just four years after Ollie won a national championship and three years after he was mentioned in connection with a high-profile NBA opening that ended up going to a different sitting college head coach. When UConn fired him in early March after a second consecutive season ended without a tournament berth (and as the NCAA investigation into the school’s recruiting practices continued), there was no guarantee an A-list candidate would sign on with the Huskies, whose stature has diminished considerably since the realignment scramble that sent it from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference.
The Huskies wound up getting one of the hottest names on the market in the 45-year-old Hurley, whose East Coast ties, sideline acumen, basketball bloodlines and commendable six-season run at Rhode Island made him a match in Storrs. While the short-term upside here might be limited—Hurley is going to need some time to upgrade a lean roster that posted sub-170 Ken Pomeroy adjusted efficiency marks on offense and defense this season—the long-term outlook is rosy. The AAC’s addition of Wichita State last year brought another national power to the conference, and Cincinnati isn’t showing any signs of losing momentum under head coach Mick Cronin, but there’s little reason the Huskies can’t aspire to trade blows at the top of the standings with that pair on a regular basis.
Out: Mark Fox
In: Tom Crean
The Bulldogs parted ways with Fox in March after their win total dropped by one for the third consecutive season, bottoming out at 18–15 with a 7–11 SEC record in 2017–18. Over Fox’s nine seasons in Athens, Georgia made the tournament only two times, both as a No. 10 seeds, and cracked the AP Top 25 only once. That just wasn’t going to cut it at a Power 5 program with a lot of untapped potential, and one presumes that Kirby Smart’s rapid turnaround on the gridiron, punctuated by a national championship game appearance in January, didn’t help those pleading for patience on Fox’s behalf.
Georgia pulled the plug on Fox in time to snap up a promising replacement with considerable experience at the high-major level. After spending a year proving that he won’t have any trouble catching on as a television analyst once he steps away from the sidelines for good, Tom Crean is taking on a job with a far lower profile than his nine-year run at Indiana. Crean won’t face as much pressure to win big in Athens as he did in Bloomington, but his capacity to do so is not in question. There’s a fertile recruiting base to tap into, plus a favorable competitive hierarchy in the SEC. Crean doesn’t need to start beating out John Calipari for Southeast-based blue-chippers to make Georgia a fixture in the at-large conversation.
Out: Rick Pitino/interim David Padgett
In: Chris Mack
Chris Mack’s choice to leave Xavier for Louisville is a testament to the Cardinals’ enduring appeal as a coaching destination. A program that generated so much off-court turmoil that it prompted speculation about the distant possibility the NCAA might impose the death penalty managed to lure one of the most coveted coaches in the sport from a Big East heavyweight.
Mack smoothed Xavier’s jump from the Atlantic 10 to the high-major ranks, took the Musketeers to the tourney in eight of his nine seasons and this spring beat out the eventual national champions for the regular-season Big East title. That Louisville was able to persuade Mack to leave his alma mater in spite of that sustained success reflects well on the Cardinals’ stature in the wake of a seemingly unceasing stream of negative publicity—to say nothing of the looming possibility of additional punishments resulting from an NCAA investigation into the information turned up during the FBI’s ongoing probe into corruption across college basketball. Louisville can move forward confident it has an accomplished steward to navigate the program through this turbulent period.
Out: Tubby Smith
In: Penny Hardaway
There is little doubt that Memphis needed to turn the page on the Tubby Smith era. He wasn’t winning enough. He wasn’t recruiting at the level required to fuel consistent conference championship contention and tournament participation. And there were more and more empty seats at FedExForum.
Memphis sought to reverse the downward spiral by making what at first blush looked like a nostalgia-fueled reach for a former player, but there’s a lot to like about Hardaway. His terrific two-year playing career at Memphis in the early 1990s is a bonus on top of his three consecutive state titles at nearby East High, the brand-name recognition he holds among disillusioned supporters and his connections to highly regarded recruits.
For the Tigers’ 2018 class, Hardaway has already flipped a top-100 prospect from Texas A&M (shooting guard Antwann Jones) and reeled in two esteemed local point guards (Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris). Hardaway could put the Tigers in position to compile a loaded class of 2019 haul including five-star center James Wiseman, four-star small forward D.J. Jeffries (currently committed to Kentucky) and four-star power forward Chandler Lawson. However many of those players do ultimately pick Memphis, Hardaway should be able to replenish the roster in short order. That would be a good start for a head coach with no previous college experience.
Ole Miss: B
Out: Andy Kennedy
In: Kermit Davis
This feels like a sensible union of a seasoned leader with a long track record of Division I success and a program that’s experienced little of it over the past five years. Only once since 2013 have the Rebels made the tourney (in 2015, as a No. 11 seed) or finished more than two games above .500 in SEC play (also in 2015, when they went 11–7). This season, they dropped 11 of their 12 final games, including seven in a row before Kennedy resigned in the middle of February, lowlighted by a 17-point defeat at in-state rival Mississippi State on Feb. 17. (They finished 5–13 in the SEC and 12–20 overall.) Ole Miss had stalled out well below the SEC’s top tier without plummeting to the cellar, with no obvious path to a sustainable step forward.
This may not be a quick fix for Davis, but the Mississippi native’s stint at Middle Tennessee should inspire optimism that he can shake the program from its current rut. He’s led the Blue Raiders to consecutive regular-season championships in Conference USA as well as two tournament wins in the last three years, including a shocking upset of No. 2 seed Michigan State in 2016. Pulling off a stunner of that magnitude at Ole Miss will first require getting into the field. That’s a bar Davis can and will be expected to clear more frequently than Kennedy did over 12 seasons in Oxford.
Out: Kevin Stallings
In: Jeff Capel
The Kevin Stallings hire smacked of a huge misstep the moment it became official, and over two years Stallings did little to counter the perception that he was past his coaching prime and ill-equipped to joust with the ACC’s roster of elite coaches. A program that once fancied itself a juggernaut in the old Big East finished this past season 8–24, 0–18 in conference play, 182nd in average point differential when adjusted for strength of schedule and 227nd in Pomeroy’s overall team rankings.
The Panthers reportedly made a run at Hurley, but Capel is a more-than-solid fallback option. As Duke evolved into a premier one-and-done pipeline in recent years, Capel garnered praise for his ability to forge connections with big-time prospects. Capel will need to attract better players to Pittsburgh than Stallings was able to, but it’s unrealistic to think he’ll have the Panthers beating out the Blue Devils for five-stars. Arguably more important is the head coaching experience Capel accrued prior to his arrival at Duke: He spent four seasons at VCU before jumping to Oklahoma, where he oversaw an Elite Eight trip in 2009 that ended with Blake Griffin putting up 23 points in a loss to eventual national champion North Carolina.
Out: Chris Mack
In: Travis Steele
Promoting from within has paid off handsomely for Xavier in the recent past, and there’s a decent chance it will again. The Musketeers turned to Sean Miller when Matta left for Ohio State. Mack took the reins when Miller bolted for Arizona. With Mack heading to Louisville, Xavier could have bucked the trend and looked outside the family. Instead, it is wisely banking on a proven formula.
Although this is Steele’s first D-I head coaching gig, he has had a front-row seat as Mack molded Xavier from a plucky mid-major into a Big East force with staying power at the top of the food chain. Steele spent nine seasons serving as an assistant under Mack and was promoted to associate head coach in 2015. The 36-year-old should keep the Musketeers on the same steady track that has seen them earn five trips to the Sweet 16 and one to the Elite Eight since he joined the staff, even as he must replace the three leading scorers (Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Kerem Kanter) from this season’s 29-win team that earned the first No. 1 seed in program history. Unless Wright is tempted by a pro job over the next few years, the Big East will continue to run through Villanova, but under Steele, Xavier can solidify its status as one of the Wildcats’ chief challengers.