College basketball coaching carousel: 8 questions to answer

It just means more, that's what the SEC commercials proclaim. No one ever really thought those declarations were about basketball, especially as the league drifted through the backwaters of relevancy through large swaths of this decade.

Back in 2016, the SEC received just three NCAA tournament bids. In a short window, the league has shown just how much more basketball means.

Not only did the SEC get seven teams in this NCAA tournament, four of them have advanced to the Sweet 16. That flurry of success has prompted a flurry of alternate activity, as the league also leads college basketball in open jobs by a large margin.

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Alabama, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M now all have openings.

An opening at LSU appears imminent, as the university appears to be daring Will Wade to speak with them or he'll be fired for cause. (Yahoo Sports reported Wade was on FBI wiretaps talking about making a "strong-ass offer" to a recruit.) The only certainty among those jobs around New Year's was Texas A&M, which either shows an uptick in basketball ambition or impatience.

With the NCAA tournament in full swing and Michael Avenatti mud wrestling with Nike and perhaps forcing more openings, here's a look at how the SEC jobs and other key openings around college basketball play out.

1. What will the Crimson Tide do?

One of the reasons the SEC hit its basketball slump was too many programs taking risks on hot up-and-coming coaches. Experiments with hot mid-major coaches like Stan Heath (Arkansas), Johnny Jones (LSU), Tony Barbee (Auburn) and Darrin Horn (South Carolina) quickly went bust. (Wade appears headed down the Donnie Tyndall road of NCAA infractions infamy, a parallel track.)

Will Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne learn from this? Byrne is conservative by nature, and will certainly be aware of any federal connections to a coach after what's happened to Arizona coach Sean Miller since Byrne left Tucson. (Sorry, Rick Pitino need not apply.)

Cross off any NBA names, as Avery Johnson lacked the consistent diligence required to be a college coach. And cross off Steve Prohm, who should have screamed "Roll Tide" as he signed his contract extension on Tuesday.

The guess here is an established head coach — think Thad Matta or Mick Cronin. Maybe Bryne goes for an out-of-region splash with Eric Musselman or a Jim Larranaga-type hire in Wofford's Mike Young. This is the most mysterious job on the board, in part because there wasn't much of a plan to let Johnson go. Former Arkansas coach John Pelphrey is on staff and could be given consideration.

2. What will Vanderbilt do?

Lot of pressure for new athletic director Malcolm Tuner. His choice to fire Bryce Drew was panned nationally. The odd decision to attempt to "reassign" him to save money was roundly mocked by his peers considering he works at a place with a $4.6 billion endowment.

Turner came from the NBA’s G League, which would mean his most recent alleged expertise is in basketball. But he still hired the Korn Ferry search firm, likely because that's the firm that hired him. So only three months on the job, Turner has become a savvy veteran in the greasy quid-pro-quo legal kickbacks of the search business. He's obviously a quick learner.

So who will he hire? The school has made it clear it wants a veteran and established coach with success at multiple schools. (All the less reason to pay a search firm.) Think a veteran in the mold of Georgetown's John Thompson III, UCF's Johnny Dawkins or Notre Dame's Mike Brey.

3. What will Arkansas do?

Athletic director Hunter Yurachek is too smart to fire the solid but unspectacular Mike Anderson without a plan. A source summed up the plan in Fayetteville this way: "Kelvin Sampson, Kelvin Sampson and Kelvin Sampson." Yurachek was on staff at Houston when they hired Sampson, and Sampson can't be thrilled the current administration hasn't appeared in any hurry to lock him up long term. Sampson likes UH and living in Houston, but he's been around long enough to be skeptical of putting his career in the hands of an eccentric billionaire (Tilman Fertitta) and an athletic director with little juice (Chris Pezman).

This has been perceived to be done for so long that there's buzz Houston already has a replacement lined up. Look for UH to act fast, as this is the most obvious move outside Buzz Williams leaving for Texas A&M. It's a Fertitta production, so look for a big splash hire — maybe Eric Musselman? — so Fertitta can show up at the news conference to pat himself on the back. (Maybe he'll call sports talk radio to rip Lane Kiffin like he did a few years back. That was fun.)

If somehow Sampson stuck around, Chris Beard would be another solid option in Fayetteville. (Maybe a better one.) He has strong ties from his successful stint at Arkansas Little Rock. He may wait around at Tech and have his pick of prime jobs next season.

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams jokes with Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton, not shown, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams jokes with Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton, not shown, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

4. What will Texas A&M do?

As far back as last season, Buzz Williams has had an open invitation to return to Texas A&M. It's the job where he'd always been forecasted, and it appears close to an inevitability he'll return to the place he served as an assistant from 2004-06. (Don't be surprised if LSU interim coach Tony Benford ends up on his staff.)

Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock is wise enough to realize the potential of this that he's been calling around about background on candidates for weeks. He's smart, which means he certainly wouldn't be surprised by the move. No one would be. Not only will it happen, it's expected to happen soon after Tech loses. Whenever that may be.

The most obvious part that this search is laser-focused on Williams comes from the fact it has been completely silent otherwise. No interviews. No candidate buzz. Only Buzz. (Sampson is the only other half-hearted name.)

Interesting that Tech was in the same pod in San Jose as Irvine's Russell Turner, who is a Virginia native. Turner impressed coaching but flopped in his admission of talking trash to an Oregon player.

A fascinating curiosity: How would two Hokie wins in Washington this weekend change things?

5. What will LSU do?

The soap opera in Baton Rouge is playing out to where the only person who thinks Will Wade has a shot at returning is Wade. By the time he asked to return in a statement, referencing his "constitutional rights," LSU had already moved on. Wade's refusal to meet with his bosses appears to be a clear reason to fire him for cause. There appears to be a better chance of New Orleans and Baton Rouge becoming dry cities than Wade coaching again at LSU.

Eric Musselman is a good name here. He was an assistant coach at LSU and his outsized success at Nevada would make him a good fit. LSU may be more likely to explore the mid-major route, as they'd be wise to put a premium on a coach with a clean reputation. (Buffalo's Nate Oats, Murray's Matt McMahon, Northern Kentucky's John Brannen and Vermont's John Becker are the top mid-major names.)

As for Wade, the early odds on the best place for him to return to college coaching in a few years come at Liberty University, which has emerged as the Division I's Last Chance U.

6. What does UCLA do?

The job has been open since New Year's Eve, and it doesn't appear much closer to being filled. UCLA is aiming high, as the flirtations with Kentucky's John Calipari indicate. Calipari appeared to end his flirtations with a seemingly annual tweet that declares his love for Kentucky. (Until, of course, he listens to another school or NBA franchise the next season and then tweets out his unconditional devotion.)

The best name here is Virginia's Tony Bennett, but it's still hard to see him in the bright lights of L.A. Realistic names are Luke Walton, Cincinnati's Mick Cronin and Eric Musselman. None are perfect, as all have flaws in experience, personality or geography. Texas Tech's Chris Beard is a name that hasn't got much traction, which could change if Tech continues its dominant season.

There's really little chance at a home run here. The Bruins need the right guy. Not sure the right marriage between interested candidate and UCLA's high-end expectations is out there.

7. What will the other open Pac-12 jobs do?

The Pac-12 has a financial problem, and it shines through in a few areas. One is football assistants, as the yawning gap between the Pac-12 and the rest of the power conferences makes retention of talent more difficult.

The other is with the financial have-nots. Predictably, Washington State went the mid-major route and is reportedly close to hiring San Francisco coach Kyle Smith. He's a fine coach, especially tactically, but not exactly the type to bring sizzle to Pullman.

The names for Cal include Montana's Travis DeCuire and Russell Turner from UC-Irvine. Both are solid.

Jason Kidd getting hired at Cal seems like a great idea at the country club or wine tasting, but a really bad idea in the compliance office and recruiting trail. Kidd is a fine basketball coach, but this seems more like winning the news conference than finding a Mike Montgomery-like fixture. It was hilarious to watch him crush the dreams of Cal fans by politicking for the Lakers job on ESPN right after the Cal job opened.

The good news for Cal is the old administration set the bar so low on the Wyking Jones hire that they can't possibly do any worse.

Kansas head coach Bill Self reacts in the first half during a first round men's college basketball game against Northeastern in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Jeff Swinger)
Kansas head coach Bill Self reacts in the first half during a first round men's college basketball game against Northeastern in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Jeff Swinger)

8. What jobs could open amid the federal basketball investigation?

This is the most asked question on the landscape, as it will generate enough hot air to fool everyone into thinking the Final Four was in Phoenix instead of Minneapolis.

Can Sean Miller navigate the thorny federal landscape and keep together his highly rated recruiting class? That doesn’t seem easy, with a subpoena to appear in court looming that could force difficult decisions for both he and the university. Does he squash the subpoena? Can he plead the fifth? Or will the truth and playing of wiretaps set him free to another decade of dominant college coaching? Hard to bet on the last option considering everything swirling in the recruiting space.

Will Bill Self risk his Hall of Fame career to the fickle whims of the NCAA enforcement staff and Committee on Infractions? He's come out strong publicly that he wants to be at Kansas. That’s catnip to fans and local media. But is it reality?

It would be difficult to imagine a college president hiring Self with his program under NCAA scrutiny. (But, Cal-State Northridge did hire Mark Gottfried, so you never know. Unrelated: N.C. State reportedly daring Gottfried to sue them for his buyout money is by far the most hilarious reverberation from the scandal. The school essentially said, "We dare you to take the stand, Mark.")

Self's strongest NBA ties come in San Antonio, as he has a good relationship with Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. But would Gregg Popovich want Self to replace him? That's trickier.

Self faces a difficult choice that goes much deeper than his rah-rah public statements. It will be telling to see if he becomes active once the NBA cycle begins. Of the ensnared coaches, he's the most established and has the actual coaching acumen to be on an NBA sideline. (Success in college doesn't always mean good coaching, as paradoxical as that sounds.) The NCAA has shown glimpses of acting tough in the wake of this federal scandal, but predicting everything it will end up doing — and even when it will do it — is as foolish as hoping and wishing it will all go away.

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