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Kentucky is joining in on the trend that is reshaping men’s college basketball

As he deliberated on whether or not to take the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, Connecticut men’s basketball head man Danny Hurley was said to be drawing motivation to accept the position from doubters saying it wouldn’t work.

Fact is, UConn’s offensive sets are often a work of near art. Without question, the coach of the back-to-back men’s NCAA hoops champions has the strategic acumen to work at the highest level of basketball.

However, a coaching motor that runs too hot is the reason to be skeptical of Hurley as a pro head man.

Hurley’s intensity burns so furiously, he literally ran on the court to push one of his own players during the Huskies’ 2024 NCAA championship game victory against Purdue.

Could such a coach survive in a league with an 82-game regular-season schedule?

If Hurley, 52, ultimately goes to the Lake Show (as these words were written, he was still mulling) it will remove the brightest coaching star from what I think of as “the next generation” of men’s college hoops head men.

At the sport’s elite level, men’s college basketball coaching is in the midst of a profound generational transition. Exiting from the stage over the past three years have been coaching icons such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Villanova’s Jay Wright and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.

Williams, now 73, started the exodus when he stepped down after the 2020-21 season. Krzyzewski, now 77, and Wright, now 62, both followed into retirement after the 2021-22 campaign. Boeheim, now 79, exited the stage following the 2022-23 season.

Throw in the career implosion of West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, now 70, in the summer of 2023, and five of the coaching giants of men’s college hoops over the past three decades-plus have all departed the sport in a span of three years.

If Hurley goes to the Lakers, there will only be six coaches working in Division I men’s hoops in 2024-25 who have won NCAA championships — Tony Bennett (2019), John Calipari (2012), Scott Drew (2021), Tom Izzo (2000), Rick Pitino (1996 and a vacated title in 2013) and Bill Self (2008 and 2022).

Four of that six — Pitino, 71; Izzo, 69; Calipari, 65; and Self, 61 — are north of age 60, suggesting there is more transition to come at the elite levels of men’s college hoops coaching in the not too distant future.

Though he left for another job rather than retire, the decision by Calipari to vacate the head coaching seat at Kentucky this spring after 15 seasons to go to Arkansas meant UK joined fellow blue bloods Duke and North Carolina in needing to enact a succession plan to replace a Hall of Fame coach.

As UNC and Duke had previously done, Kentucky ultimately turned to one of its former players, Mark Pope, as its new head coach.

Kentucky’s Mark Pope is part of a changing of the guard in recent seasons in the head coaches at men’s college basketball blue bloods.
Kentucky’s Mark Pope is part of a changing of the guard in recent seasons in the head coaches at men’s college basketball blue bloods.

Unlike Hubert Davis at Carolina and Jon Scheyer at Duke, Pope, the former Utah Valley and BYU head coach, does bring prior head coaching experience into one of the most visible coaching jobs in college athletics.

So far, the coaches without head coaching pasts have fared fairly well at UNC and Duke.

In the three seasons since Davis was promoted off of Roy Williams coaching staff to become North Carolina head man, the Tar Heels have been on a bit of a wild ride.

In 2021-22, Davis coached North Carolina to the NCAA title game, where the Tar Heels suffered a come-from-ahead loss to Kansas.

Perhaps of more lasting import from that season for Tar Heels backers, North Carolina earned one of the all-time rivalry talking points by beating Duke at Cameron Indoor Arena in Krzyzewski’s final regular-season home game — then backed that up by defeating Duke again in the Final Four to end Coach K’s career.

The following season, North Carolina returned four starters and began the year ranked No. 1 in the nation. In an epic flop, UNC wound up going 20-13 and missing the NCAA Tournament.

This past season, Davis presided over a resilient bounce back, leading North Carolina (29-8) to the ACC regular-season title and advancing to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Since Scheyer was elevated off of Krzyzewski’s staff two seasons ago to replace the five-time NCAA championship coach, Duke has gone 27-9 twice.

The Blue Devils won the 2023 ACC Tournament but were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32. In 2023-24, Duke reached the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.

Of particular importance for a coach of the team that followed the Calipari-era Kentucky program into the deep end of the one-and-done recruiting pool, Scheyer has continued to attract ballyhooed prospects at a Krzyzewski-like pace. Over the prior three recruiting classes, Duke has ranked No. 1, No. 2 and No. 1 in the 247Sports composite team rankings.

So for Kentucky backers nervous over their new coach’s good but not great coaching résumé, the relative success so far of Davis at North Carolina and Scheyer at Duke would seem to augur well for what a more-experienced Pope can do in Lexington.

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