- From true hot seat candidates to program builders looking to ward off fan unrest, this college basketball season means just a little bit more for some coaches. Here are 10 names with a lot riding on their teams' improvement.
These 10 coaches are in charge of programs in wildly different situations entering the 2018–19 college basketball season—from teams mired in rebuilds to those opening practice with plenty of optimism—but one common thread is that all 10 need results.
Steve Alford, UCLA
Alford hasn’t shed his underachiever reputation during his time in Westwood. While some programs would happily take three Sweet 16 appearances in five seasons, it feels like a disappointment at UCLA with all of the recent NBA first-round talent that has played at Pauley Pavilion. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, two of Alford’s past three seasons have finished without a win in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins have another highly ranked recruiting class coming in, headlined by big man Moses Brown, who will be one of three five-star commits on the roster, as Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands both returned for sophomore campaigns. This team simply has too much talent, and any result other than finishing near or at the top of the standings in a shoddy Pac-12 would be a major disappointment. But with the expectations as high as ever in UCLA, Alford needs a big run in March to quell the rising temperature on his seat. — Max Meyer
Ernie Kent, Washington State
Washington State has won 25% of its conference games in the four years Kent has been coach, and the present looks just as bleak as the past. Four guards announced their transfer out of the program this past offseason, including star floor general Malachi Flynn. As a result, Washington State projects to be not only the worst team in the Pac-12 this season but also the worst team in any major conference. If Kent can’t retain his top talent at an already struggling program, a change in direction has to be strongly considered. And it’s not like Washington State can rely on promising recruits to turn it around in Pullman. The Cougars are far off from competing even for mediocrity in the Pac-12, and there’s only so many chances they can give Kent to prove that he’s the right guy to lead this team. — MM
Chris Mullin, St. John’s
St. John's has finally arrived at the season it has built toward in the three years since parting ways with Steve Lavin following a one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance in 2015 and replacing him with a school and NBA legend with no coaching experience at any level. Mullin’s first two recruiting classes finished second in the Big East according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, but the Red Storm’s on-court follies have threatened to kill his momentum: They have won just 12 conference games in three years and have not yet finished above .500 overall, and the two most recent freshman classes have dropped down the league standings. The centerpiece of that initial 2015 recruiting class, point guard Marcus LoVett, elected not to return to the program after an injury-shortened 2017–18 season.
Still, last February offered a glimpse at what the program could be under Mullin when the Johnnies snapped out of an 11-game losing streak with shocking upsets of top-five Duke and Villanova in the same week, powered by do-everything guard Shamorie Ponds, who led the Big East in scoring. After flirting with the NBA draft, Ponds withdrew his name before the June deadline, and if the NCAA grants Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron’s medical hardship waiver to play this season, Mullin will have one of the best backcourts in the country at his disposal. New athletic director Mike Cragg said at his introductory press conference that St. John’s is “in a prime position to win this year.” If Mullin cannot make the most out of what almost everyone assumes will be Ponds’s final year of college ball, it will be hard to ask for more patience in Queens. — Eric Single
Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets’ year-two dip under Pastner was especially disconcerting in light of the excellent statistical season put together in vain by guard Josh Okogie, whom the Timberwolves made a first-round pick this June, and in light of a messy legal battle between the coach and an Arizona couple that falsely accused Pastner of sexual assault in February, creating a massive distraction that added more sting to a winless February. With the team’s top two scorers behind Okogie from a year ago (Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson) out of eligibility, the prospect of sliding even farther down the ACC pecking order after a 13th place finish and out-of-conference losses to Grambling, Wright State and Wofford is, needless to day, unappetizing.
After his seven-year Memphis tenure plateaued, Pastner arrived in Atlanta without the buzz he may have received a few years earlier, and if the Jackets slip further into irrelevance this fall, the early October school release headlined “Excellent Seats Available For Basketball Season” may not be the last of its kind. — ES
Richard Pitino, Minnesota
Minnesota raised some eyebrows when it hired Pitino, then 31, after just one season of head coaching experience at FIU back in 2013, and the returns after five years have been a mixed bag. Since Tubby Smith was surprisingly fired after leading the school to its first NCAA tournament win since 1997, the Golden Gophers have made the field just once. Pitino’s teams have struggled with year-to-year consistency, illustrated by Big Ten finishes of seventh, 10th, 13th, fourth and 11th—in order. The low point of Pitino’s tenure has been the 2015–16 season, when the Gophers went a dismal 8–23 and just 2–16 in the Big Ten, the program’s lowest overall win total since 1967–68.
Pitino’s time in Minneapolis has also been marred by off-court issues, including the 2016 suspensions of Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer for posting a sexually explicit video on social media and the ’18 expulsion of Reggie Lynch after he was found responsible by the school for two separate instances of sexual misconduct from 2016. After injuries contributed to Minnesota’s poor 2017–18 season, when it went 4–14 in the conference, the team should be healthy again and expects to show notable improvement. If the wheels fall off again, it may spell the end for Pitino. — Molly Geary
Danny Manning, Wake Forest
After taking control of the smoking crater in Winston-Salem left behind by Jeff Bzdelik, Manning was going to get some rope from a fan base desperate for a leadership change. Two years ago, the Demon Deacons snuck into the First Four, but that brief tournament stay has now been overshadowed by Manning’s 4–17 record against in-state ACC rivals (all four of those wins came against NC State), and last year's 4–14 conference record would have gotten more negative attention if Pitt had not at the same time been mining the depths of how bad a major-conference program can be.
All three Deacs who averaged double-digit points per game a year ago are gone, but hope arrives this fall in the form of five-star freshman wing Jaylen Hoard, the first top-20 recruit by the RSCI composite rankings to choose Wake Forest since Al-Farouq Aminu a full decade ago. The ACC isn't getting easier, but the mood would be a little lighter around the program if Manning rides Hoard to a top-10 league finish and Wake returns to the bubble conversation. — ES
Mark Turgeon, Maryland
Turgeon is entering year eight at Maryland, and despite four seasons of 24 wins or more, the Terps’ list of postseason accomplishments under him ends at three NCAA tournament appearances and one Sweet 16. As a program, Maryland has been to the Sweet 16 just twice since its 2002 national title, but that shouldn’t be the bar for a school that hasn’t had a .500 or worse season since the early days of Gary Williams in 1992–93 and is so close to the fertile recruiting grounds of D.C. and Baltimore.
Turgeon’s teams have dealt with their share of injuries, including Justin Jackson last season, but the same can be said about many schools. Maryland has finished in KenPom.com’s top 30 just once under Turgeon, and never higher than No. 22—which came in 2015–16, the year it went to the Sweet 16 and began the season ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. The ’18–19 season should be viewed as a crucial one for Turgeon, even though he’s under contract through 2023 with a hefty buyout. He brought in his best recruiting class yet, led by five-star Jalen Smith, and has a veteran point guard in Anthony Cowan and a talented returning big man in Bruno Fernando. The pieces are in place for a bounce-back year after missing the postseason entirely, and a return to the NCAA tournament should be the minimum expectation, else it be time to seriously evaluate the program's future under Turgeon. — MG
Tim Miles, Nebraska
Nebraska should have two main goals this season, and both are achievable: get to the NCAA tournament, and win the first NCAA tournament game in program history. The Cornhuskers have only made the NCAA tournament once since 1998 (2014, when they won 19 games in Miles’s second season) and are the only Power 5 school to never win an NCAA tournament game. But after three straight losing seasons, they broke through in ’17–18, turning around early losses to St. John’s and UCF to achieve a 22-win season and an impressive 13–5 mark in Big Ten play. A scarcity of truly impressive wins kept them out of the tournament, and they then flamed out in the first round of the NIT.
With leading scorers James Watson Jr., Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaac Copeland all back for their senior years, the expectations heading into this season are raised now for both Nebraska and Miles, who's entering his seventh season. This should be the year the Huskers make the jump as a program, and if everything goes right, they could contend for the Big Ten title. But they have been in this position before: in 2014–15, they entered the year ranked No. 21 in the AP poll and stumbled to a 13–18 season and 12th place conference finish. Miles has to prove that this time, things will be different. — MG
Dave Leitao, DePaul
DePaul's problems go back much, much farther than Leitao's second stint as head coach; the Blue Demons haven’t won more than a third of their Big East games in any of the last 10 years. But the malaise surrounding the program that has settled in since jumping from Conference USA has not lifted since the return of the man who engineered the team's last trip to the tournament in 2003-04. DePaul has won a total of nine games after New Year’s Day in the past three seasons and has often looked completely outclassed against the top half of the Big East, although last spring offered several encouragingly close losses.
Heading into the second year at a new downtown arena, it would be nice to turn more of those close losses into wins and smooth over relations with a nonplussed fan base in the process. Leitao has added three transfers this summer in an attempt to juice a lineup that finished just below average in KenPom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings and was dreadful from behind the arc last season (its 31.0% clip from three-point range was good for 333rd in Division I. — ES
Pat Chambers, Penn State
For starters, let’s note that Chambers has always had a tough situation in Happy Valley. While he came to Penn State the season after it made its first (and still only) NCAA tournament appearance since 2001, the basketball program has long had the unenviable position of playing decidedly second fiddle, in both attention and resources, to the famous football team. Chambers is entering his eighth season with PSU and has won more than 18 games just once, though that one time was this past season, when the Nittany Lions went 26–13 and won the NIT for the second time in school history.
Chambers has raised Penn State’s recruiting profile in recent years, most notably reeling in four-stars Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens in 2016, a duo that helped lead the Nittany Lions to one of the best seasons in program history in ’17–18. But Carr departed for the NBA draft, and while there is plenty still left in the cupboard—including starters Stevens, Mike Watkins and Josh Reaves—it’s an important year for a program that still hasn’t been to an NCAA tournament in seven years under Chambers. He now has the chance to get positive tangible results for the second year in a row and make a statement about the program's future. — MG