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Texas (Smart), Miss. St. (Howland) receive high marks in coaching hires

New Texas coach Shaka Smart and new Mississippi State coach Ben Howland among the best coaching hires of the off-season.

One of the biggest stories of college basketball’s off-season was not as dramatic as expected. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall spurned reported interest from Texas and Alabama and re-upped with the Shockers. One of the hottest names on the coaching market decided to stay put. Marshall will surely be connected to other jobs next off-season, but with nearly every hire complete this off-season, it's time to give out grades.

So which schools made the best hires?

Biggest Names

Shaka Smart, Texas

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Ever since VCU reached the Final Four in 2011, no coaching search has been complete without Smart’s name included in the conversation. Texas was the school to finally lure the 38-year-old coach away from the Rams. It’s easy to understand the hype surrounding Smart; he won at least 26 games in each of his six seasons at VCU. But he also hasn’t advanced past the second round of the tournament since reaching the Final Four. Still, with Marshall remaining at Wichita, Smart was the biggest hire of the off-season. His style of play and enthusiasm should reverse the Longhorns’ tournament fortunes—if he can handle increased expectations. Grade: A

Ben Howland, Mississippi State

Howland’s arrival in Starkville is the cornerstone of the SEC’s strong off-season. Mississippi State shocked much of the college basketball world by hiring the former UCLA coach to replace Rick Ray, who was fired after three seasons. The Bulldogs now employ a coach who has taken three teams to the NCAA tournament, reached three Final Fours and won 69% of his games. But Howland couldn’t advance past the second round in his final five seasons at UCLA. Meanwhile, off-court troubles and recruiting misses soured his reputation. Starkville is not Los Angeles, so Howland must prove he can still recruit. But the Bulldogs are undoubtedly trending upward thanks to his arrival. Grade: A

Will Wade, VCU

Losing Smart was inevitable at VCU. But hiring Wade away from Chattanooga was a perfect way to maintain the program’s momentum. Wade not only won during his tenure with the Mocs, going 40-25 in two seasons, but he’s also a familiar face for the Rams. Wade spent four seasons as an assistant under Smart in Richmond. VCU made a strong decision to bring in a coach who knows the program and would have been plucked by another school very soon. Grade: A


Rick Barnes, Tennessee

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart might have saved his job by hiring Barnes. Hart was forced to fire coach Donnie Tyndall after one season due to an NCAA investigation into Tyndall’s former school, Southern Miss. The Vols then upgraded with Barnes, who is fresh off a Texas tenure in which he reached the NCAA tournament in 16 of his 17 seasons. That wasn’t enough in Austin, but it would be cause for celebration in Knoxville. The question is how far Barnes can take the Tennessee program once it’s in the tournament. Getting to the dance is the Vols’ first priority, however, which makes Barnes a stellar hire. Grade: B+

Bobby Hurley, Arizona State

Arizona State fired Herb Sendek after he went to just two NCAA tournaments in nine seasons. In turn, the Sun Devils brought in Hurley, who became a hot name after 42 wins and two MAC titles in two seasons at Buffalo. Hurley comes from good stock, having earned All-America honors as player under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, and he took the Bulls to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history last season. But is he ready for a big-time coaching job? Hurley started coaching full-time in 2010 and has only two seasons of experience as a head coach. Fans might have to be patient at Arizona State. Grade: B

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Avery Johnson, Alabama

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It’s not often a major college program hires a coach without any college experience. But by bringing in Johnson, Alabama did just that. Johnson has plenty of head-coaching experience on the NBA level, having spent six-plus seasons with the Mavericks and Nets. The good news is Johnson brings more name recognition and energy to Tuscaloosa than the departed Anthony Grant. The bad news is no one knows how Johnson will translate to the recruiting trail. For now, Johnson brings a necessary spark to the Crimson Tide. Grade: B-

Chris Mullin, St. John’s

If St. John’s planned to stoke the fires of its fan base with this hire, it made the right call. The Red Storm brought in former player Chris Mullin to replace Steve Lavin in a move that can only be described as high-risk, high-reward. Mullin was a three-time All-America at St. John’s and finished his career as the school's all-time leading scorer (2,440 points). But he has never coached basketball full-time. Mullin’s homecoming should sell plenty of tickets, but there’s very little evidence to suggest this one’s a slam dunk. Grade: C

Other notable hires

Dave Paulsen, George Mason

Paulsen has been a head coach on some level since 1994. That run has included four stops, and he’s left each school with a winning record. Prior to landing at George Mason, Paulsen compiled a 124-92 in six seasons with Bucknell, reaching the NCAA tournament twice. He also won a Division III national championship at Williams. George Mason, which went 66-67 in four seasons under Paul Hewitt, scored by hiring a coach who knows how to win. Grade: A

Matt McCall, Chattanooga

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The Mocs newest coach brings with him a solid pedigree. McCall spent the past four seasons on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida, going to four Elite Eights and a Final Four in that span. He’ll also inherit a roster that understands success; Chattanooga won 22 games last season. McCall, who is 33 years old, could blossom into the same up-and-coming coach that Will Wade was in East Tennessee. Grade: A-

Eric Musselman, Nevada

Nevada’s new leader has been a head coach with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings and, most recently, a college assistant at Arizona State and LSU. At his introductory press conference, Musselman promised a fast-paced, offensive-minded game with the Wolfpack. Musselman can teach basketball, and he’ll have to change the culture of a program that went 9-22 last year. But selling offense and excitement is a good first step. Grade: B


Brian Wardle, Bradley

Bradley hopes it can tap into the momentum that Wardle had going at Green Bay. In five seasons with the Phoenix, Wardle went 95-64, including a 48-16 mark with two NIT appearances over the last two campaigns. That’s the kind of success Bradley could use after only one winning season in the past four years. Grade: B

Mark Price, Charlotte

Price didn’t have to go far to land his first head coaching job. After two seasons as an assistant with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, Price walked down the street and took the head job at Charlotte. The scenery will be a bit different for Price at his new gig. He hasn’t coached at the college level since a stint as a Georgia Tech assistant during the 1999-2000 season. That’s why Price might have to adjust to the recruiting grind. Grade: B-

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Dave Leitao, DePaul

When DePaul announced the hire of Leitao, the coach said, “I underestimated what a special place DePaul University and the city of Chicago are when I left here in 2005.” Wait, he left DePaul? Indeed, Leitao coached the Blue Demons from 2002-05 before taking the Virginia job. Perhaps a familiar face is good for DePaul; Leitao led the program to its most recent NCAA tournament appearance (2004). But he also has .526 career record as a head coach and is hardly a new direction for the program. Grade: C