With less than two weeks until a new college basketball season officially tips off, it’s worth looking at some names to know in the coaching profession beyond Coach K, Juwan Howard and Penny Hardaway. After seeing the early success of people like Eric Musselman and Nate Oats in building elite programs after leaving the mid-major world, it’s obvious that some of the top coaches in the sport often reside at lower levels. Here are some who could be the next Oats or Musselman.
Mark Pope, BYU
Just nine teams have finished in the top 20 of KenPom each of the last two years. The fact that one of those nine is BYU, in Pope’s first two years as coach, speaks volumes about how elite at the job he is. That stat becomes even more impressive when you consider that BYU lost its top three scorers from the 2019–20 team heading into 2020–21. Pope is a skilled tactician (especially on offense) and a savvy recruiter who has brought in some highly regarded talent to Provo. After getting a look for the Arizona job this spring, expect some of the bigger brands in the sport to have Pope on their wish list should their jobs open ... though Pope’s Mormon faith might keep him in Provo for the long haul.
Niko Medved, Colorado State
Medved has turned around programs everywhere he has been. First it was at Furman, where he brought the Paladins from No. 342 in KenPom the year before he arrived to No. 106 in his fourth year. In his lone year at Drake, the Bulldogs jumped from No. 258 to No. 155 and won eight more games in the process. Now, he’s on the verge of something special at Colorado State after a highly successful third season that saw the Rams nearly sneak into the NCAA tournament. Expect CSU to get over that hump in 2021–22 thanks to the play of star juniors Isaiah Stevens and David Roddy, the centerpieces of what Medved has built in Fort Collins.
Drew Valentine, Loyola Chicago
No, Valentine hasn’t coached a single game yet. But he was an essential part of leading Loyola to unprecedented success while Porter Moser was in charge, and he should take to the head chair seamlessly. He’s the youngest head coach in Division I college basketball and taking over a program with high expectations, but Valentine is cut from the same cloth as Moser in terms of his ability to create culture and is sharp when it comes to X’s and O’s. He’s also a tremendous recruiter who has helped Loyola get involved with high-end talent in future classes. It didn’t take long sitting in on practice in Rogers Park this fall for it to become clear to me that Valentine is a star in this business.
Kyle Smith, Washington State
Smith’s remarkable ability to rebuild programs was detailed in Sports Illustrated this summer, and this year could be the breakthrough. The Cougars return star wing Noah Williams and talented youngsters like Efe Abogidi while adding talent from the transfer portal, bringing in the types of players needed to seriously contend for an NCAA tournament bid at the high-major level. Smith is also known for his strong analytical background that has been huge in creating advantages for his programs, which otherwise might be behind the eight-ball from a resources standpoint. If Wazzu has the type of year I expect it to have in 2021–22, there will be little remaining doubt that Smith is one of the best coaches in college basketball.
Dennis Gates, Cleveland State
Gates didn’t inherit your run-of-the-mill rebuild at Cleveland State. The late firing of Dennis Felton meant Gates didn’t take over until late July and, at one point, had fewer than five scholarship players committed for the 2019–20 season. To take that near-disastrous situation and flip it into an NCAA tournament bid in his second year is proof of Gates’s recruiting chops. He also has a strong reputation as a motivator and a strong pedigree, having worked for Leonard Hamilton at Florida State. It was a surprise to many around the industry that Gates didn’t get a high-major job this past spring after being in the mix for multiple openings, so you can expect to see his name mentioned for other big jobs this time around.
Stan Johnson, Loyola Marymount
The former Marquette assistant immediately injected life into the Lions’ program a season ago, leading Loyola Marymount to its first-ever top 100 finish in KenPom in his first year as head coach. That bodes well for the future, and the Lions have an intriguing crop of newcomers that will augment a strong returning core and give this group a chance to go dancing in 2022. Eli Scott is one of the nation’s most unique players, a bowling-ball forward who does it all. If Northern Arizona transfer Cameron Shelton lives up to his lofty billing at point guard, Johnson will have this group in position to climb the WCC ladder.
Darian DeVries, Drake
If I had a vote, DeVries would have been among my top-five candidates for National Coach of the Year last season. The job he did to not only start 18–0 but also finish strong despite his roster being ravaged with injuries was unmatched across the sport. He had to adjust how his team played throughout the year, particularly after the loss of star point guard Roman Penn due to a foot injury. DeVries is held in very high regard by his peers for his ability to game plan and make adjustments, and he has proven to be a savvy recruiter at a difficult place to win. If I were an AD in the Midwest in need of a new coach, he’d be on my shortlist.
Grant McCasland, North Texas
In five years as a D-I head coach, McCasland has won 20 or more games four times. The lone year he didn’t win 20 games, he won an NCAA tournament game. McCasland also won a national title as a juco coach and won 82% of his games as a D-II coach. The guy is just a winner. A member of Scott Drew’s strong coaching tree, McCasland’s no-middle defense is schemed similarly to how Baylor and Texas Tech have played in recent years, and his teams also run efficient offense in the halfcourt. Star point guard Javion Hamlet graduated from last year’s special team, but expect North Texas to be among the C-USA’s best for as long as McCasland roams the sidelines in Denton.
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Dustin Kerns, Appalachian State
A Mike Young disciple, Kerns has proven he can do more with less at his two head coaching stops. He won 20 games in his second season at Presbyterian, and given the challenges at Presbyterian it’s akin to reaching a Final Four at a high-major program. While at Presbyterian, he found a diamond in the rough in Adam Flagler, now a star at Baylor. Currently at Appalachian State, Kerns took the program to just its third-ever NCAA tournament in Year 2 and has things on a clear upward trajectory in Boone. He’s a ball coach through and through, and his eye for under-the-radar talent is a huge reason he’s had success pretty much everywhere he has been.
Kim English, George Mason
There’s no doubt that English is a riser in the industry. A head coach in the Atlantic 10 at just 33 years old, English’s meteoric rise from NBA draft pick to budding coaching star in less than a decade is surprising only to those who’ve never spent time around him. He hasn’t coached a game at George Mason yet, but early returns are very promising: English landed top-100 wing Justyn Fernandez as the crown jewel of a talented 2022 recruiting class that should serve as the backbone for years of success in Fairfax. With a talented transfer crop in tow to surround big man Josh Oduro, success in Year 1 seems quite possible.
Ten more to watch:
- Casey Alexander, Belmont
- Jeff Boals, Ohio
- Austin Claunch, Nicholls
- A.W. Hamilton, Eastern Kentucky
- Robert Jones, Norfolk State
- Carmen Maciariello, Siena
- Mike Magpayo, UC Riverside
- Bob Richey, Furman
- Richie Riley, South Alabama
- Byron Smith, Prairie View A&M
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