Nearly two decades ago, AAU basketball coaches started showing up on the coaching rosters of college basketball programs. Some turned into giant successes, such as Oklahoma City Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver. Others made their way to head coaching gigs, like California’s Wyking Jones, who has flopped in his opening season (8-19, 2-12 in Pac-12).
As the trend of adding grassroots coaches and organizers accelerated the past decade, those coaches often became known as designated recruiters, sometimes hired for a specific player on the AAU circuit. (Occasionally, they’d depart with them.) And while there’s no way to fully quantify how hiring coaches primarily for recruiting purposes penetrated college basketball, the trend went from an anomaly to an expectation.
Many of those assistant coaches have struggled to get consideration for head coaching jobs, as they’ve been niched – fair or not – as recruiting specialists. The trend has become prevalent enough where industry sources who closely follow the coaching market pointed out the diluted pool of available assistant coaches the past few years.
The lingering specter of the federal investigations into the basketball underworld, combined with the dynamic of fewer qualified high-profile assistants, make this a particularly difficult year to hire assistant coaches. The overwhelming expectation of this coaching carousel is that few assistant coaches will be considered for high-profile jobs. (Duke associate coach Jeff Capel’s past NCAA issues at Oklahoma will be scrutinized and assistant coaches like Miami’s Chris Caputo and Michigan State’s Dane Fife aren’t expected to be considered this cycle because of the issues looming at their current programs.)
“It’s a tough time to hire assistant coaches,” said a veteran athletic director who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Hiring an assistant coach is risky to start. Now with the potential FBI/NCAA issues, they are an even bigger unknown commodity. You have to rely on other people’s word. And right now, you don’t know whose word is good in college basketball.”
In an era where the FBI investigation has triggered skepticism over top recruiters at high-major programs, few are expected to land jobs in this coaching cycle. “I think it’s hard,” said an industry source who tracks hiring and firings. “The low-major head coaches aren’t paying people. Assistant coaches at high majors, that would be tough.”
With the uncertain environment shaping the hiring market, here are 12 assistant coaches expected to get looks on the coaching carousel.
1) Ron Sanchez, Virginia – Is there a better model to copy right now in college basketball than Virginia? Sanchez is the associate head coach for Tony Bennett, who he’s worked for at Washington State and UVA for 12 years.
2) Micah Shrewsberry, Boston Celtics – Along with five seasons with Brad Stevens at the Celtics and three at Butler, he also worked under Matt Painter at Purdue for two years. (He helped recruit Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards while a Boilermaker assistant.) He was a candidate at UMass and Butler last year, which makes him a rare assistant in this cycle where a high-end job is attainable.
3) Tommy Lloyd, Gonzaga – Mark Few’s longtime top aide has had plenty of suitors over the years. He’s elected to stay as Few’s top lieutenant. Would that change this year for a prime West Coast gig? (There doesn’t project to be many choice West Coast jobs.)
4) Travis Steele, Xavier – He’d be considered for the head job if Chris Mack leaves for Louisville. If Mack stays, Steele has been a strong name for a few years in that Midwest geographic footprint.
5) Ashley Howard, Villanova – He’s been with Jay Wright for five seasons at Villanova and appears poised to be the next Wright disciple to get a job. Prior experience with Drexel and La Salle make him an obvious candidate for any openings in and around Philadelphia.
6) Ryan Pedon, Ohio State – In a year defined by surprise teams rebounding to make the NCAA tournament, few have overhauled themselves more than the Buckeyes. Pedon has been a driving force behind the scenes, and his experience at Butler, Illinois and Toledo make him a logical candidate at any Midwest job.
7) John Pelphrey (Alabama) – There’s a dearth of SEC assistants ready to take the leap to head jobs. Both Pelphrey and Tennessee’s Rob Lanier are former head coaches and cagey veteran hands who have helped surprising resurgences at their current schools.
8) Chris Ogden, Texas Tech – He has a strong pedigree from playing at Texas, coaching there and working at Tennessee. He’d be a natural fit at UTEP, which has already opened up this season. Tech’s anomalous success – some of which should be credited to Tubby Smith’s staff – shouldn’t go unnoticed in the state.
9) Greg Gary, Purdue – Purdue has emerged as a logical incubator in this cycle. Gary has been with Matt Painter for seven years and has two seasons as head coach at Centenary. (He resigned when Centenary announced they were de-emphasizing the program.)
10) Rod Balanis, Notre Dame – His 18 seasons with Mike Brey in South Bend are a strong selling point to athletic directors. As associate head coach the past two years, he’s helped push the Irish into a different recruiting paradigm. They rank No. 11 in the Rivals team rankings and are bringing in four four-star players next cycle.
11) Rashon Burno, Arizona State – The Pac-12 isn’t brimming with top candidates, especially with Arizona and USC assistants untouchable. Burno brings a wide swath of experience, as he played for Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s and coached under Billy Donovan at Florida. He’s been Bobby Hurley’s top lieutenant at Arizona State and helped orchestrate their improbable surge this year.
12) Chris Crutchfield, Oklahoma – This is a good cycle to be a Lon Kruger disciple. Crutchfield helped recruit both Buddy Hield and Trae Young, who’ve proven to be monster stars for the Sooners. He’s been at OU for seven years and associate head coach for two of them.
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