First-year coaches are often granted the benefit of the doubt when it comes to results, with bigger-picture goals often the byproduct of a program’s past struggles. Year 2, on the other hand, tends to be a more telling checkpoint. Starting anew is no small task: of the eight second-year coaches highlighted below, just three managed their way to the NCAA tournament, and none made it out of the Round of 64. But from here, expectations can shift quickly. Below, SI takes a look at the Year 2 outlook for eight coaches and their programs.
Georgia: Tom Crean
Last season: 11–21, missed tournament
Season two at Georgia is shaping up to be particularly pivotal for Crean, largely due to the presence of projected top-five draft pick Anthony Edwards, who will draw the national spotlight in what should be a brief stay in college. If Edwards has success at Georgia, more top talent should follow. If he struggles, landing additional blue-chip recruits could become a trickier task moving forward. Winning games is obviously imperative, and there’s enough talent on the roster for the Bulldogs to move toward the middle of the pack. They won just two games in the SEC last season, a mark that’s expected to improve. But from an optics standpoint, becoming a viable landing spot for elite high school players is crucial for the long-term health of the program.
Crean has had success on the recruiting trail already, and Edwards is joined by a handful of viable recruits, including hyper-athletic forward Christian Brown and shifty point guard Sahvir Wheeler. Regulars Rayshaun Hammonds, Jordan Harris and Tyree Crump are back, and give the rotation some experience and stability. Despite losing Nic Claxton to the NBA earlier than expected, the influx of young talent has the needle pointing in the right direction, at least on paper. It all comes back to Edwards, who has immense physical ability at shooting guard, but also has a lot to learn conceptually. Expect him to have some huge scoring nights, but there will be times his inexperience shines through. Georgia will have to give him a long leash and let him play through his mistakes. But if it all breaks correctly, Edwards’s football-type strength and burgeoning playmaking skills could turn him into more than a bully-ball scorer early on. The Bulldogs’ place in the SEC pecking order and the program’s long-term growth potential should hinge on how well he acclimates.
Louisville: Chris Mack
Last season: 20–14, lost in first round
Expectations for the Cardinals are approaching dangerous levels: the ACC is as wide-open as it’s ever been and the majority of Louisville’s rotation returns, augmented by a strong freshman class. Mack hit the ground running in his first year, and despite with some ups and downs in conference play, making the tournament with a bit of a patchwork team was a positive start. The Cardinals were capable on both ends of the floor, with consistent half-court shot creation being their primary issue. This year, they’re deeper at every position, at least on paper, boast a Player of the Year candidate in Jordan Nwora and are positioned for a serious leap.
There’s a nice level of experience at every position with Nwora, Steven Enoch, Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon and Darius Perry all back (Malik Williams will miss at least the first month of the season with a broken foot). Grad transfer Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble should take over ballhandling duties, and ostensibly prove an upgrade on the tandem of Christen Cunningham and Khwan Fore. Louisville should get real contributions from its freshmen, but won’t necessarily be reliant on them, which is an enviable position. That said, Samuell Williamson has pro potential and could be a serious factor, and Aidan Igiehon and Josh Nickelberry figure to play roles. If the Cardinals start strong, there will be some Final Four talk.
Memphis: Penny Hardaway
Last season: 22–14, missed tournament
The Tigers are one of the trickiest teams to gauge on paper, set to lean heavily on their freshmen and hoping to reap immediate fruits from Hardaway’s first blockbuster recruiting class. The presence of potential No. 1 pick James Wiseman has ignited national hype, but patience is likely in order as Hardaway tries to mesh new players and freshmen at every position. Memphis figures to benefit from an exceedingly soft schedule, and will try to put their best guys in positions to succeed immediately. The trick will be sorting out minutes and rotations to keep everyone happy, while finding a way to maximize Wiseman and turn him into a consistent force. It’s far from impossible, but this feels like a team that could end up peaking later in the season. There’s certainly enough talent on the roster that it could translate to postseason success.
Expect Memphis to try and play through Wiseman, keep him active as a screener, and get him involved in games early and often. He can space the floor as a shooter, take slower bigs in face-up situations, and cover for mistakes defensively. If Wiseman finds a strong level of consistency, everyone benefits. The play of sophomore guards Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax will be key, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a lot of three-guard lineups, with freshmen Boogie Ellis, Lester Quiñones and Damion Baugh all likely to be involved. Ellis and Quiñones are college-ready, the former a dynamic ball-handler and the latter a potential game-changing three-point shooter. At forward, Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries will need to acclimate quickly. The early expectations are that this is a tournament team, and Hardaway and his staff are tasked with figuring out what the best version of this group looks like. Memphis has real momentum building on the recruiting trail, and a strong season is key to furthering those efforts.
Ole Miss: Kermit Davis
Last season: 20–13, lost in first round
Davis’s first year proved a nice surprise, with an eight-win improvement, respectable conference finish and tournament berth all above and beyond what most predicted entering the season. The Rebels remain in pretty good shape for another go-around, losing star guard Terence Davis and forward Bruce Stevens, but bringing back athletic guards Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler as well as sophomore Blake Hinson (who may miss some time with a health issue) and KJ Buffen. Replacing Davis, a second-team All-SEC guard and the team’s best playmaker, will be a challenge, particularly with the turnover issues that plagued the team last season. But there are enough athletes on the roster to play their preferred high-pressure style on defense, and JUCO transfers Khadim Sy and Bryce Williams should help matters. A top-five conference finish is within reach.
Pitt: Jeff Capel
Last season: 14–19, missed tournament
A 13-game ACC losing streak left a stain on Capel’s long-awaited return as a head coach, but things are looking up with the return of sophomore guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, each of whom had strong flashes and earned major minutes as freshmen. Expect the Panthers to inch toward the middle of the pack in the conference, and while an at-large tournament bid is a lot to ask, the key remains progression. Capel took on as tricky a rebuild as any in the country, and the bad juju of the Kevin Stallings era sits squarely in the rearview. A .500 finish would be a solid result, with potentially more important gains awaiting on the recruiting trail.
UConn: Dan Hurley
Last season: 16–17, missed tournament
Hurley fancies himself an expert at building programs, and has a history of getting results. UConn overachieved at times last year, and despite the graduation of Jalen Adams, will bring back players with untapped upside, including forwards Sidney Wilson and Tyler Polley and former McDonald’s All-American Alterique Gilbert, who’s finally fully healthy. Glue guys Christian Vital and Josh Carlton also return. Freshmen Jalen Gaffney, James Bouknight and Akok Akok have the ability to help right away. The AAC isn’t exactly a gauntlet, and improving on a 6–12 mark in conference is eminently doable. Hurley has built a more intriguing roster than he’s gotten credit for, and while it’s not the UConn of old, the Huskies appear to be gaining ground in what’s expected to be their last year before returning to the Big East.
Utah State: Craig Smith
Last season: 28–7, lost in first round
Smith’s arrival helped ignite the Aggies’ first 20-win campaign since 2013, and after winning the Mountain West tournament and tying Nevada for regular-season honors, Utah State is now the favorite in the conference. This might be the most dangerous team outside the traditional major conferences, featuring one of the best guards in the country in Sam Merrill and a good cast of returners led by Portuguese center Neemias Queta. Queta dodged a major injury playing internationally over the summer, but it’s still unclear exactly when he’ll return to action. All five starters are back, with reserve forward Quinn Taylor the only key departure. With the rest of the conference, particularly Nevada, in a bit of flux, it would be a surprise if this isn’t a team that enjoys repeat success. If Merrill and Queta play up to their potential, they could be dangerous in March, as well.
Xavier: Travis Steele
Last season: 19–16, missed tournament
Most of Xavier’s top players return, with center Zach Hankins the only big departure and the trio of Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs and Quentin Goodin giving this group a solid backbone. Steele inherited a team that had lost a lot, and managed to finish the season strong. A return toward the top of the Big East is more than feasible, with Scruggs and Marshall both poised to improve on solid seasons, Goodin back to run point, and leading rebounder Tyrique Jones stepping into a bigger role. Grad transfers Jason Carter and Bryce Moore are expected to play big roles, and there’s plenty of experience and quality on the roster to navigate a conference with no runaway favorite. If Steele can shore up his defense, Xavier should be in strong shape to return to the tournament.