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Five College Hoops Coaches Exceeding Expectations in Year 1

Whether or not they were facing a major rebuild, these men’s programs are all overachieving so far in 2021–22.

The men’s college basketball season is just over a month old, and that means we have enough data points for most teams to make some real takeaways about where things stand. One thing that’s obvious so far: First-year coaches have thrived. While some of the higher-profile coaches that took jobs this offseason, like Chris Beard at Texas or Hubert Davis at North Carolina, don’t make the cut for this list, there’s a strong case to be made that the two top candidates for men’s National Coach of the Year honors are in their first years at their respective programs. And after another banner weekend of quality wins for some of these early overachievers, here’s a look at five coaches succeeding in their new homes.

T.J. Otzelberger, Iowa State

Through just over a month, the clear favorite for National Coach of the Year honors should be Otzelberger. The longtime former ISU assistant took over in Ames after two years as the head coach at UNLV and inherited what appeared to be a long rebuild after a dreadful 2–22 season, which led to the dismissal of Steve Prohm. And yet here the Cyclones are, 10–0 and ranked No. 11 nationally.

Offensively, newcomers Izaiah Brockington and Tyrese Hunter have given life to a group that lost its top five scorers from a season ago. Brockington, who began his career at St. Bonaventure and later spent time at Penn State before moving on after a coaching change, has been a revelation and led the way with 29 points in a rivalry win over Iowa last week. Meanwhile, Hunter stayed committed to the Cyclones despite originally signing while Prohm was at the helm and has provided stability at the point guard position.

But what has really allowed the Cyclones to surprise under Otzelberger has been the team’s remarkable defensive turnaround. Hunter has been a ballhawk on the defensive end, while forwards Tristan Enaruna and George Conditt IV make life difficult on drives to the rim. The result? In five games against high-major teams, opponents are scoring just 0.83 points per possession.

Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd

Tommy Lloyd claps during Arizona's game at Illinois.

Tommy Lloyd, Arizona

The Arizona job was too good to pass up for Lloyd, who had turned down opportunities across the country in the past in favor of staying at Gonzaga under Mark Few. So far, that long education under Few looks like it has paid off. The Wildcats have looked like the best team in the Pac-12 thus far and were incredibly impressive Saturday in a huge road win over Illinois.

Now, it should be noted that Lloyd inherited a far better situation than the others on this list did. All five starters from the team’s win over Illinois played first under Sean Miller, including a pair of clear NBA talents in Bennedict Mathurin and Christian Koloko along with a high-level college PF in Azuolas Tubelis. But player retention is half the battle in the transfer portal age, and Lloyd deserves credit for keeping all this talent in Tucson. Plus, he’s overseen huge strides in the development of Koloko and point guard Kerr Kriisa, who was huge in the second half against the Illini.

The Gonzaga influence is obvious in Lloyd’s X’s and O’s on both ends of the floor. Combine that high-level tactical ability with the elite talent the Wildcats have, and there’s a reason Arizona, at 9–0, is so tough to beat.

Ben Johnson, Minnesota

Johnson’s path to his current job is the most improbable: He was passed up for the Northern Illinois position in early March and less than a month later was named coach of a Big Ten team that also happens to be his alma mater. So far, he’s proving the doubters of that hire wrong and has his Golden Gophers at 8–1 after an impressive win at Michigan on Saturday.

There’s no official preseason poll for the Big Ten, but Minnesota was the consensus pick to finish last. Johnson inherited a significant rebuild; just one scholarship player who suited up last season for the Gophers has stepped on the floor this season. That player is Eric Curry, a sixth-year senior who had originally planned on being a graduate assistant this season before deciding over the summer to lace them up one more time. The rotation has usually gone just seven deep, and the eighth man has been walk-on Will Ramberg.

The path to the NCAA tournament is still an uphill battle, and this group has an extremely slim margin for error thanks to its lack of depth and top-end talent. But the job Johnson has done to get the most out of this group and put together a disciplined, hard-playing team that has far exceeded expectations deserves a ton of credit.

Tony Stubblefield, DePaul

Another first-time head coach, Stubblefield has reenergized the DePaul program and is fresh off a signature early road win at Louisville. The Blue Demons head into a week with rivalry games against UIC and Northwestern at 8–1 on the season and so far have looked like a team that could play in the postseason despite being picked last in the Big East’s preseason poll.

The biggest thing Stubblefield has brought is a competitive spirit and energy the program lacked under Dave Leitao. The Blue Demons play incredibly hard and scramble around on the defensive end, using their length and athleticism to bother opposing offenses. That’s been most evident at the rim, where center Nick Ongenda and Yor Anei have been among the nation’s most proficient at blocking and impacting shots.

Stubblefield has also gotten the most out of a pair of returners in Javon Freeman-Liberty and David Jones. Jones showed flashes a season ago after reclassifying late into the 2020 class but has blossomed in a major way under Stubblefield, averaging more than 17 points and eight rebounds per game while shooting 36% from deep. Meanwhile, Freeman-Liberty is the only player in the country averaging at least 20 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, and he looks like an all-Big East guy in his senior season.

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Shaka Smart, Marquette

The most notable change about Marquette in Year 1 under Smart is that it has a clear identity. The Golden Eagles are flying around on defense, and while not every game will produce the 26 turnovers Marquette forced in its early-season upset of Illinois, the effort and energy on that end of the floor has been a constant. In many ways, this group looks a lot more like one of Smart’s VCU teams than the squads loaded with five-star talent we saw under him at Texas.

Early-season wins over Illinois, West Virginia and Ole Miss have given the Golden Eagles a solid résumé, and so far they’ve avoided the types of bad losses that could hurt them come Selection Sunday. Getting into the Big Dance in Year 1 under Smart would be a major win, considering how many young players are contributing to this team. Sophomores Justin Lewis and Tyler Kolek have been essential, while freshmen Kam Jones and Stevie Mitchell have been key cogs in the backcourt. The future looks very bright in Milwaukee. 

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