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​College Basketball Mailbag: All-Stars, Hot Seats and Coaching Trees

Welcome to Sports Illustrated’s weekly college hoops mailbag with Kevin Sweeney. Here, Kevin will field questions submitted via Twitter and email about a variety of topics in the sport. Have a question you’d like answered in a future mailbag? Send it to @CBB_Central on Twitter or Kevin.Sweeney@si.com (questions around either men’s or women’s basketball are welcome!). Without further ado, let’s get to your questions, which have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity ...

Jacob asks (via DMs): If college basketball had an All-Star Game fan vote like the NBA, who would be the top-five vote getters?

This question is a timely one, as the NBA just announced the first returns of its All-Star voting. As always, these are part popularity contest, part actually-the-best-players-get-in. There are two players that feel like locks not just because of their play, but also because they play for teams with massive (and active on the internet) fanbases: Kofi Cockburn from Illinois and Oscar Tshiebwe from Kentucky. Each hulking big man has put up monstrous numbers for their respective teams, with Tshiebwe leading the nation in rebounding and Cockburn averaging over 22 points and 11 rebounds per game for the Illini.

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn is introduced

Cockburn is third nationally in both scoring (22.5 ppg) and rebounding (12.5 rpg).

That leaves three spots. One has to go to Johnny Davis of Wisconsin, who deserves National Player of the Year honors after his explosion against Purdue on Monday. And with the remaining two spots, Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Ochai Agbaji both come from massive fan bases and have had huge seasons. The biggest snub in this is probably Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell, but we’ll call him vote-getter No. 6, a clear All-Star who doesn’t make the imaginary Twitter graphic.

Drew asks: Any coaches on the hot seat that need to make the most of their conference play?

Well, I’d argue that any coach on the hot seat needs to make the most of conference play if they want to keep their job. But, I do think there are a few in particular whose jobs hinge on what they can do in conference play.

Chris Mack at Louisville is probably the biggest name on this list. Mack was, on paper, the perfect hire to bring Louisville through the post-Pitino era. But since a breakthrough Year 2 cut short by the pandemic, the results have been underwhelming. The Cardinals missed the NCAA tournament in 2021 and got off to a poor start this season, with nonconference losses to Furman, Western Kentucky and DePaul. Add in potential NCAA violations, the bad PR of this summer’s extortion case against former assistant Dino Gaudio and a new AD incoming, and it’s absolutely win-now mode for Mack. All that said, winning games in the ACC isn’t the most daunting task right now, and Louisville is off to a 4–0 start in league play. It’d be hard to move on from Mack if the Cardinals put up a big number in their ACC win column.

Another name I’ll throw out in win-now mode is Chris Collins at Northwestern. Collins has an NCAA tournament-caliber roster that he’s had plenty of time to develop over the years, and with star senior Pete Nance playing his last season in Evanston, it feels like now or never for Collins to get the Wildcats back to the Big Dance. A bad home loss to Penn State that featured a blown double-digit second half lead was a bad sign for the Cats’ NCAA tournament hopes, particularly given how soft NU’s nonconference schedule was. And like Mack, the AD that hired Collins at Northwestern is no longer in Evanston.

Valpo Hoops Fan asks: Who do you think has the best or most promising “coaching tree” for developing coaches as assistants and thriving into future head coaches?

This question took me awhile, and I decided there’s no easy way of compiling who truly has the best coaching tree. That said, Rick Pitino’s tree (and the branches that have sprouted from Pitino’s branches) is the one that stands out most to me. From NBA coaches like Billy Donovan, Dwane Casey, Mark Jackson, Frank Vogel and Brett Brown to college coaches like Mick Cronin, Tubby Smith, Kevin Willard, Mark Pope, Kevin Keatts … and the list goes on. And think about all the coaches that each of those coaches have developed, all stemming from the Pitino tree. It’s a vast network in the sport.

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One other name I think is worth mentioning here that doesn’t have nearly the same breadth of coaches as Pitino is Rick Barnes. Barnes has helped his assistants get some outstanding mid-major jobs in recent years, like Kim English at George Mason, Rob Lanier at Georgia State and Desmond Oliver at ETSU. His older former assistants like Frank Haith, Fran Fraschilla and Herb Sendek have all had strong careers of their own.

Patrick asks: Is Miami for real or is it a mirage?

I guess it’s a question of how we’re defining “for real.” I will say this: I left Miami for dead on Thanksgiving when the Hurricanes got spanked by a Dayton team fresh off losses to UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay. That was premature. Miami, for its flaws, is a really dynamic offensive team … and Dayton isn’t nearly as bad as it looked in the season’s first two weeks. We’ve seen that play out for Miami since that game: The Canes have won all but one of their 10 games since, with the only loss coming to an excellent Alabama team. In the process, they’ve gotten out to a 4–0 ACC start and opened the door for a potential NCAA tournament bid.

Miami's Isaiah Wong dribbles

Isaiah Wong (right) is having another strong season for the Hurricanes.

Miami is really, really good on offense. The backcourt trio of Isaiah Wong, Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore can score with anyone in the country, and the Canes as a whole are shooting a blistering 44.5% from beyond the arc in four ACC games. But Miami’s defense remains one of the most porous in the high-major landscape, and all four wins in conference play have been at home. I can’t see the Canes keeping this up.

That said, someone in the ACC has to win 13 or so conference games and go dancing. Can Miami be that team? Yes, I think it can. Put the Canes on the bubble if the season ended today.

Andy asks: What is your favorite press row moment from this season so far?

It’s hard to pick one moment in particular, partially because I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the best games of the year. I was courtside for Illinois and Arizona’s epic duel in Champaign, in the gym when Johnny Davis dropped 37 on Purdue, saw a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown between Gonzaga and UCLA and much, much more.

To me, the thing I’ve loved most about being back on the road seeing games this year is getting to sit close to (or behind) a team’s bench and hearing coaches, well, coach! It’s one thing you can’t pick up at all from the television. I was probably 15 feet from Tommy Lloyd as he got his biggest test as a head coach in Champaign and got to watch how he addressed his players and staff in those key moments. I watched Chaminade’s coaching staff implore their team that they could hang around with Oregon if they just executed. But of the benches I’ve sat within shouting distance of this season, my favorite to be near was Houston’s. It might not be safe for the airwaves, but I’d pay anything for the tapes of an uncensored Kelvin Sampson mic’d up for 40 minutes. The way he demands excellence from his players is special to watch and explains how they’ve been so successful. That said, watching him turn to his assistants and bark “We can’t do anything right!” while they led 31–13 against Butler at the Maui Invitational was truly hilarious.

I watch college basketball pretty much every day. I think when you watch that much ball, you really appreciate the things you can’t see on TV when you’re in the gym. And those inside-huddle moments definitely qualify.

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