Year one for a new coach is never easy. There are a plethora of reasons why taking over a program is a major adjustment that usually takes time to produce results. For starters, new hires head into the season with rosters made up mostly of players they didn’t recruit. Earning trust and commanding the locker room can be difficult, especially if the team struggles early on or players don’t buy in to the way the new coach wants to do things. There’s also the pressure that comes with impatient fanbases expecting success, a factor that is amplified exponentially for coaches moving from a mid-major school to a major conference.
The 2017–18 season saw 11 new coaches leading programs from the Power 5 or Big East. It’s now year two for that group, and expectations have adjusted. The second season is when coaches need to start proving themselves. If you surprised in year one, can you prove it wasn’t a fluke? If you got off to a slow start, can you make progress in the right direction? Our rankings of last year’s new hires, based not on their first-season success but on their outlook for 2018–19, are below.
Tier 1: Trending up in a big way after shaky debuts
Archie Miller, Indiana (16–15, 9–9)
Archie Miller is a perfect example of why you don’t judge a new coach right away. Indiana was mediocre last season, but who cares? Miller’s chops as a recruiter have the Hoosiers primed to contend in the Big Ten this year and beyond. Indiana’s 2018–19 ceiling shot through the roof when five-star Romeo Langford stayed in state and committed to IU. Langford is an elite scorer from all three levels who should pair perfectly with senior forward Juwan Morgan. Behind that duo, junior big De’Ron Davis, and a host of other four-star freshmen and sophomores, Indiana has top-20 potential.
Mike Hopkins, Washington (21–13, 10–8, NIT)
Longtime Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins breathed new life into a Washington program that had grown stagnant under Lorenzo Romar. Hopkins won more games last year than any of Romar’s last five teams (and beat Kansas and Arizona), but what has Huskies fans excited is the direction of the program. Led by stud sophomore Jaylen Nowell and seniors Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, and David Crisp, this team should go dancing for the first time since 2011.
Will Wade, LSU (17–13, 8–10, NIT)
LSU, like Washington, is a team that hasn’t had much success this century but appears to have made a home-run coaching hire during the 2017 offseason. Johnny Jones, who failed to get Ben Simmons to the tournament, needed to go. Enter Wade, who landed one top-50 recruit (PG Tremont Waters) in 2017 and three in his fourth-ranked 2018 class, including five-stars Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams. Given the level of talent around him, Waters should build on the 16 points and six assists he averaged as freshman. LSU has the talent to do well in a tough SEC, but is currently reeling from the tragic death of junior Wayde Sims.
Tier 2: Exceeded expectations but likely to see a dip
Chris Holtmann, Ohio State (25–9, 15–3, NCAA Round of 32 as No. 5 seed)
Despite making the NCAA tournament in all three of his seasons at Butler, Holtmann entered his first year at Ohio State with preseason power rankings projecting the Buckeyes to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten. Instead, Keita Bates-Diop returned from injury and won Big Ten Player of the Year and OSU wound up a game short of a conference title. However, things figure to be more difficult for Holtmann in year two. Bates-Diop is gone, and so are Kam Williams and Jae’Sean Tate. The Buckeyes will need big years from C.J. Jackson, the Wesson brothers (Kaleb and Andre) and Wake Forest grad transfer Keyshawn Woods to get back to the Big Dance.
LaVall Jordan, Butler (21–14, 9–9, NCAA Round of 32 as No. 10 seed)
The guy who replaced Holtmann at Butler didn’t miss a beat in keeping the Bulldogs relevant in the Big East. Jordan’s team beat No. 1 Villanova in late December and gave No. 2 seed Purdue a legitimate scare in the Round of 32. Like Holtmann, however, Jordan loses his best player. Kelan Martin and his 21 points and six rebounds per game are gone, as is physical center Tyler Wideman. Junior guard Kamar Baldwin is a star, but will his supporting cast—wings Paul Jorgensen and Sean McDermott, big man Nate Fowler—step up in expanded roles? Jordan signed the worst 2018 recruiting class in the conference, though four-star Duke transfer Jordan Tucker will be eligible after the first semester ends in mid-December.
Tier 3: Made the tournament but questions abound
Kevin Keatts, NC State (21–12, 11–7, NCAA Round of 64 as a No. 9 seed)
Expectations were low for Keatts in his first season, but he quickly turned the Wolfpack from the Dennis Smith Show that they were in 2016–17 into a well-rounded team. NC State beat Arizona in November and won 11 games in the always-tough ACC, including upsets over in-state rivals North Carolina and Duke. If Keatts can repeat that performance this year, it’ll be time to start taking this program seriously. Two of his three best players (leading scorer Allerik Freeman, 7-footer Omer Yurtseven) are gone, so Keatts will rely heavily on Torin Dorn, Markell Johnson, and a trio of transfers: Devon Daniels (Utah), CJ Bryce (UNC-W), and Blake Harris (Missouri).
Cuonzo Martin, Missouri (20–13, 10–8, NCAA Round of 64 as a No. 8 seed)
Martin won the Mizzou fan base over before he coached a single game. He was hired on March 15, and just over a week later, got top recruit Michael Porter Jr. to commit to the Tigers. Two months later, he added a top-50 player in Jeremiah Tilmon. Jontay Porter, Michael’s five-star brother, reclassified down a year in August to top off the nation’s fourth-best 2017 recruiting class. Since then, disaster has struck twice in a row. Michael played only two minutes last November before news came out that he needed spinal surgery. Martin still led the Tigers to the tournament and was expected to contend for another berth this year. Then Jontay tore his ACL and MCL in a preseason scrimmage, another stroke of devastating bad luck for an ascending program. The trio of Jordan Geist, Tilmon, and Kevin Puryear will need to carry a lot of weight to make noise in the SEC.
Tier 4: Facing uphill battles during a rebuild
Mike Boynton, Oklahoma State (21–15, 8–10, NIT)
Boynton turned a lot of heads in his first season as a head coach. Despite dealing with being one of the schools affected by the FBI investigation—associate head coach Lamont Evans was fired after being arrested in late September for involvement in a fraud and corruption scheme—Boynton maintained he did not have knowledge of Evans's actions and was able to put an impressive product on the court. The Cowboys beat Kansas twice, West Virginia and Texas Tech, but only return two starters from that team. Lindy Waters and Cameron McGriff are talented, but OSU fans should be patient with Boynton in year two.
Patrick Ewing, Georgetown (15–15, 5–13)
Ewing’s first season as a head coach doesn’t look great on paper. However, dig a little deeper and it starts to impress a bit, given the circumstances. Expectations were low for the Georgetown legend in year one as he took over for the underperforming John Thompson III. The Hoyas lost a bunch of close games (including four OT losses in five tries), which is a sign of a young team. They eventually broke through with consecutive close wins over Seton Hall and Butler in February. Leading scorer Jessie Govan is back for his senior year, but standout wing Marcus Derrickson will be tough to replace. Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair were members of Ewing’s first recruiting class and should be productive sophomores, and Georgetown has the third-best 2018 class in the Big East. Still, a return to the Big Dance is at least a year or two away.
Brad Underwood, Illinois (14–18, 4–14)
Underwood surprisingly bolted from Oklahoma State after one season to take the Illinois job. As expected, he struggled in year one. There just wasn’t much talent left over from the John Groce era on this roster, meaning it will take time for Underwood to rebuild the Illini. He got one of the pieces he needed to do just that when Ayo Dosunmu, the No. 32 recruit in the country in RSCI's composite ranking, committed last October. Still, progress will be measured incrementally for Underwood at Illinois. Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Kipper Nichols won’t be enough to win many games in the Big Ten.
Tier 5: On the hot seat already?
Wyking Jones, Cal (8–24, 2–16)
Jones’s debut season in Berkeley went about as poorly as it possibly could have. In non-conference play, Cal lost by 20+ points to Chaminade (a D-II school), Central Arkansas and Portland State. After opening Pac-12 play with a win over Stanford, the Bears lost 17 of their last 18 games. Cal finished 244th in Kenpom, behind the likes of Cal St. Bakersfield and Loyola Marymount. Jones has preached patience and has put together solid recruiting classes in 2017 and 2018, but he needs to show at least slight improvement this season. Sophomores Justice Sueing and Darius McNeill averaged double figures last year and will be counted on to lead the way.