Now that the college basketball coaching carousel has largely stopped spinning, it’s time to appraise what happened.
As is usually the case, basketball is simply a weirder landscape than football when it comes to hirings and firings. Coaches and athletic directors are more apt to do strange (or at least unpredictable) things. Which is how you end up with a Josh Pastner at Georgia Tech (off to a promising start) and a Kevin Stallings at Pittsburgh (blooming disaster).
Those two appraisals come with a year’s hindsight, of course. Twelve months from now we’ll know more about the moves that were made this spring. But for the moment, here are the 12 most intriguing 2017 hires in the sport:
The hire: Patrick Ewing. The intrigue: School tries to get out of the 1980s but gets sucked back into its past after being turned down by several candidates.
That doesn’t mean the Ewing hire will fail, necessarily. It will be hugely dependent upon his completely untested ability to recruit and/or hire effective recruiters. Making inroads into the fertile “DMV” area and building relationships with the AAU kingpins will be Job No. 1 for Ewing and his staff. If he’s relying on Being Patrick Ewing, a name that will not sufficiently resonate with today’s teenagers, this isn’t likely to go well.
There are fewer concerns about Ewing’s coaching ability, after years as an NBA assistant. Player procurement will be the key.
Georgetown attempted to modernize its antiquated aura by firing John Thompson III, son of program patriarch John Thompson Jr. But the hiring follow-through wasn’t there – in part because Big John still casts a long shadow over the program, with an office in the practice facility that bears his name. Who wants to sign up for that?
Another member of the Thompson Extended Family, that’s who. Welcome back to the ‘80s, Georgetown. Good luck succeeding like it’s 1984 all over again.
The hire: Cuonzo Martin. The intrigue: Can instant talent injection translate to long-term success?
Martin wasted little time landing what might be the most talented recruit in school history in Michael Porter Jr., the top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2017 according to Rivals.com. Martin followed that up with a commitment last week from three-star guard Blake Harris, furthering his raid on what had been Lorenzo Romar’s recruiting class at Washington.
For a program at an all-time low ebb, these are giddy times at Mizzou. But during what will almost assuredly be Porter’s one season on campus, how much impact will he have? Eventual No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons took LSU nowhere near the NCAA tournament in 2015-16, and potential No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz did the same at Washington in 2016-17.
One player for one season isn’t a cure-all. Martin will have to sustain the recruiting successes – and then coach them up when they arrive. For a guy with two NCAA tournament appearances in nine years as a head coach, there is some proving to do.
The hire: Archie Miller. The intrigue: He’s good. Is he national championship good?
The last guy, Tom Crean, won two Big Ten titles. That wasn’t enough to keep his job. And that’s because a program with five national titles wants to get back to hanging big banners in the near future – or at least to playing in Final Fours, something Indiana last did in 2002.
When Butler (twice), George Mason, VCU, South Carolina, LSU, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State have all been to the Final Four more recently than Indiana, something is wrong. Time for Miller – long considered a rising superstar, who patiently waited for a Cadillac job – to make it right.
To do so, Miller must win the in-state recruiting battles Crean did not. He starts with a big one: Class of 2018 No. 3 prospect Romeo Langford of New Albany, Indiana., who is being hotly pursued by Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisville and others in addition to the Hoosiers.
The hire: Mike Hopkins. The intrigue: Did Boeheim-addicted Syracuse run off a future coaching star, to the Huskies’ benefit?
The eternal coach-in-waiting alongside Jim Boeheim got tired of waiting, jumping for a Power Five job with loads of upside on the other side of the country. A native Californian, this is a chance for Hopkins to establish himself outside Boeheim’s eternal shadow at a program that should be accomplishing more than it has.
Hopkins’ brief stint in charge at Syracuse during Boeheim’s NCAA-mandated suspension in 2015-16 didn’t go very well – the Orange were 4-5 in that time – but he remains highly regarded within the industry. Time will tell whether this is a Washington coup and a short-sighted Syracuse failure, or the other way around.
Illinois Fighting Illini
The hire: Brad Underwood. The intrigue: Wait, what?
One day, Underwood was the first-year coach at Oklahoma State. The next day, without a single inkling of anything in the works, Underwood was posing for pictures in Champaign with athletic director Josh Whitman. Less than a year earlier, Underwood had Stephen F. Austin within two minutes of the Sweet 16 before a late collapse against Notre Dame.
So was a peripatetic 12 months for Underwood, who was low-balled by Oklahoma State in salary and took his first opportunity to bolt. He’s been a consistent success but must now find his footing in a new conference and cultivate the persistently tenuous Illinois recruiting ties to Chicago.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
The hire: Kevin Keatts. The intrigue: What constitutes success at N.C. State, and can Keatts deliver it?
After watching a Tobacco Road rival hang another banner – four for North Carolina and five for Duke since the Wolfpack last won it all – the fan base can either choose to remain living in 1983 or move on with a vision of realistic success. Clearly, the program can and should be better than it has been for the past decade-plus. But dethroning Duke and Carolina – not to mention Virginia, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame – is much easier to talk about than actually doing.
The 44-year-old Keatts can win on the recruiting trail and the court (he’s 72-28 as a head coach) and will give N.C. State the opportunity to shed its underachiever label. But if you’re expecting national titles, that might be asking too much.
The hire: Will Wade. The intrigue: Are the Tigers actually getting their act together?
Since a 2006 Final Four appearance, LSU is 31 games below .500 in Southeastern Conference play. For most of that time SEC basketball has been pretty bad, which means the Tigers have been really bad.
But this hire could be good. Wade is 91-45 as a head coach, 55-15 in league play, and at age 34 is considered one of the brightest young minds in the game. The challenge will be navigating what can be a swampy recruiting culture in the state, and choosing relationships wisely.
New Mexico Lobos
The hire: Paul Weir. The intrigue: Does this raid of a rival pay off?
After a national search that seemed unfocused, the Lobos returned home and swiped the first-year head coach of New Mexico State. The 37-year-old Weir, a nine-year assistant at NMSU, was an instant hit as a head coach, going 28-6 and earning an NCAA tournament bid. Grabbing Weir may not guarantee a return to prominence for New Mexico, but it does guarantee that the rivalry with the Aggies is hotter than ever and Weir will be the least popular man in Las Cruces in a long time.
The hire: Wyking Jones. The intrigue: Is this completely crazy?
The 44-year-old Jones has more experience as an actor – he’s had small roles in several films – than as a head coach, and his hiring came as a shock to many in the business. Jones is known far more as a recruiter than as a tactician, and will have much to prove in terms of preparation and bench coaching. Put it this way: the rest of the Pac-12 is not suddenly looking at Berkeley with heightened concern.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
The hire: Mike Boynton. The intrigue: Will hiring cheap work?
Once again, Oklahoma State has the lowest-paid coach in the Big 12. That helped run off Underwood to Illinois; we’ll see what it does for Boynton, who has zero experience as a head coach and hasn’t even been considered a lead assistant for much of his 10 years in the business. From that standpoint, his salary makes sense – but does the hire in the first place? Athletic director Mike Holder – and by extension billionaire benefactor T. Boone Pickens – seem to be making their financial priorities clear.
The hire: Anthony Grant. The intrigue: A second chance for an African-American coach.
A frequent lament of black coaches is the difficulty in getting another quality head-coaching job after being fired. Grant, who coached at Alabama from 2009-15, gets that opportunity at Dayton – a program commensurate with the level where he enjoyed great success at VCU from 2006-09. He takes over one of the top programs in the Atlantic-10, and at age 50 can author a successful second act.
The hire: C.B. McGrath. The intrigue: Does the Roy Williams coaching tree still bear fruit?
It had been five years since a Williams assistant left his side for a Division I head-coaching job (Jerod Haase to UAB, 2012). The 41-year-old McGrath, who dates back to Williams’ Kansas days, gets his chance at a program Keatts resuscitated. It’s a good job in a winnable league (Colonial Athletic Association), and if McGrath has success it may revive interest in hiring Williams assistants.
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