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May 18, 2010

A dizzying ride on the coaching carousel

The coaching carousel has almost stopped spinning for this offseason. There is just one school (Chicago State) still searching for a new head man.

Thus, we thought it time to ask our basketball writers about some of the offseason moves.

Q. WHAT WAS THE BEST COACHING HIRE OF THE OFFSEASON FOR A BIG SIX SCHOOL?

David Fox: DePaul fired Jerry Wainwright in January but didn't hire a new coach until April. Oregon fired Ernie Kent in mid-March (and likely knew it would fire Kent long before then) but didn't hire a replacement until late April. Give Clemson credit, though: The Tigers knew exactly who to call and who would say yes when Oliver Purnell unexpectedly took the DePaul job. Brad Brownell replaced him a week later. It wasn't just the process that was a home run. Brownell was the most solid hire of any of the major-conference schools. He has taken two mid-majors (UNC Wilmington and Wright State) to a total of three NCAA tournaments. He has five consecutive 20-win seasons at those two programs, with no losing seasons. Clemson isn't going to turn into Duke or anything, but the Tigers won't fade away, either.

Mike Huguenin: I think Clemson did a great job in hiring Brad Brownell, who will be an Xs-and-Os upgrade over predecessor Oliver Purnell. That's not a knock on Purnell; I just think Brownell is an excellent coach. His ability to recruit is a concern, but he knows that region of the country from his days at UNC Wilmington as coach and as an assistant. Obviously, recruiting in the ACC is much more cut-throat than recruiting in the Colonial, but I think Brownell can make the move smoothly. I'm intrigued by Auburn's hiring of Tony Barbee (he certainly will increase the Tigers' talent level), Iowa's hiring of Fran McCaffery (I think he will have Iowa back in the upper half of the Big Ten in three seasons) and Oregon's hiring of Dana Altman (the guy can coach, and I'd bet he recruits well, too).

Jason King: More than a few folks were surprised when Boston College fired longtime coach Al Skinner, but the move turned out to be a brilliant one thanks to the hiring of Steve Donahue, who led Cornell to the Sweet 16 last spring.

Steve Megargee: Fran McCaffery faces a major challenge in getting Iowa back into Big Ten contention, but he has proved time and time again that he's capable of turning around struggling programs. Lehigh had four winning seasons in the 55 years before McCaffery's arrival on campus. Lehigh reached the NCAA tournament in McCaffery's third and final year on the job. McCaffery engineered similarly quick turnarounds at UNC Greensboro and Siena. In fact, Siena was the only team in the country to win conference regular-season and tournament titles in each of the past three seasons. Although all his head-coaching experience has come on the East Coast, McCaffery does have Midwest roots from his 11 years as a Notre Dame assistant. McCaffery still must prove he can recruit major-conference talent, but it's already apparent that this guy can coach.

Q. WHAT WAS THE BEST HIRE FOR A NON-BIG SIX SCHOOL?

David Fox: Greg McDermott probably made a good decision to leave Iowa State to return to his comfort zone in the Missouri Valley. At the same time, Creighton deserves credit for overlooking McDermott's lackluster stint in the Big 12. Some coaches aren't necessarily suited for a major-conference job. That's not meant as a knock on McDermott. Rather, it's a compliment that he realizes he can thrive at Creighton rather than treading water at Iowa State. Creighton has a loyal following used to seeing the Bluejays compete on a yearly basis. McDermott should be able to keep Creighton among the elite mid-majors even though the move might make Northern Iowa, his former school, uncomfortable.

Mike Huguenin: I think Wagner struck gold with Danny Hurley. The Seahawks need an aggressive recruiter and Hurley will provide that. He has been an ultra-successful high school coach in the area. I think those contacts will pay off and Wagner will be in the NCAAs in the near future. I also thought Louisiana-Lafayette (with Bob Marlin), Creighton (with Greg McDermott) and Fordham (with Tom Pecora) did nice jobs.

Jason King: Even though Tim Floyd didn't exactly leave USC on a high note, he's still regarded as one of the top minds in all of basketball. After a tough few years, Floyd will feel rejuvenated at UTEP, which continues to make impressive hires.

Steve Megargee: I like Louisiana-Lafayette's hire of Bob Marlin. Rather than taking a chance on a hot young assistant, the Ragin' Cajuns went with a proven winner. Marlin has 17 years of head-coaching experience and owns a career record of 348-166. How good a coach is this guy? Consider that Sam Houston State went 93-202 in the 11 years before Marlin's arrival. The Southland Conference program earned two NCAA tournament bids and went 163-81 during Marlin's eight-year tenure while winning at least 20 games in four of his last five years.

Q. WHAT WAS THE MOST HEAD-SCRATCHING HIRE?

David Fox: Several coaching moves were perplexing this offseason, but none was more shocking than Tim Floyd's return to college basketball. I realize he has strong ties to UTEP and he is a quality game-day coach, but the Miners should be ashamed for bringing him back to the game this quickly. He was only out for a year after the controversy at USC. In theory, he could take UTEP to the NCAA tournament before all self-imposed sanctions are lifted at USC. And this is before the NCAA has ruled on the infractions at USC. Floyd claims he is innocent in the O.J. Mayo scandal. He said his departure wasn't an admission of guilt. Instead, he left because he didn't feel like USC supported him. I'm sure UTEP did its own research, but that's not enough to make this look like a safe hire - especially when there were plenty of qualified candidates out there.

Mike Huguenin: Tim Floyd is an excellent coach, but I was stunned when UTEP hired him. Floyd's ties to the school made him a natural fit. He'll keep UTEP in the mix for C-USA titles. He will recruit well. But you'd have thought the school would have been uneasy hiring a coach who resigned less than a year ago amid talk of NCAA rules violations. USC self-imposed a postseason ban for transgressions committed during Floyd's tenure. The NCAA has yet to announce penalties. Still, UTEP hired Floyd. It's hard to take all the talk about following NCAA rules seriously when hires like this are made.

Jason King: While some are lauding the hiring of Oliver Purnell at DePaul, I can't understand why a Big Six school would pay top dollar for a longtime coach who never has won a game in the NCAA tournament.

Steve Megargee: I expect UTEP to have plenty of success under Tim Floyd, but I'm still amazed the guy landed a head coaching job so soon after he resigned from USC under a cloud of suspicion. Floyd left USC amid accusations that he gave $1,000 in cash to Rodney Guillory, who in turn helped the Trojans sign highly touted recruit O.J. Mayo. Floyd pointed out that his resignation from USC wasn't "an admission of guilt," but USC did hand down self-imposed sanctions that prevented the Trojans from being eligible for the 2010 Pac-10 and NCAA tournaments. I assumed Floyd would spend the next several years working as an NBA assistant before getting another shot at a head-coaching job from a downtrodden program willing to take the public-relations hit as long as it resulted in a few more victories. Floyd instead only had to sit out one season and now finds himself in charge of a team coming off an NCAA tournament appearance.

Q. WHICH NEW COACHES DO YOU EXPECT TO BE IN THE NCAA TOURNEY NEXT SEASON?

David Fox: If I had to pick one, I'd probably go with Kevin Willard at Seton Hall. The Pirates were in the NCAA mix going into the Big East tournament last season. The coaching change and the return of Jeremy Hazell, Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson could push Seton Hall off the bubble. Beyond Duke, the ACC is a mystery. Even without Trevor Booker, Clemson under Brad Brownell might have enough talent to return to the NCAA tournament. In the one-bid leagues, Robert Morris' Andrew Toole and Sam Houston State's Jason Hooten return the leading scorers off tournament teams, and Robert Morris also had three sophomores who played key minutes last season.

Mike Huguenin: I think Brad Brownell at Clemson, Kevin Willard at Seton Hall, Steve Lavin at St. John's, Tim Floyd at UTEP and Andrew Toole at Robert Morris will go into the season expecting to make the NCAA field. But I think Brownell will be the only one who does.

Jason King: Don't be surprised if Tim Floyd and Steve Donahue get their schools into the Big Dance. Steve Lavin inherits a load of returning talent at St. John's. Tony Barbee added some top-notch recruits to Auburn's roster.

Steve Megargee: I don't think you'll see many first-year coaches in the NCAA tournament next year. Clemson, Cornell, Houston, Robert Morris, Siena, UTEP and Wake Forest made coaching changes after reaching the 2010 NCAA tournament, but nearly all those schools suffered major losses to graduation and/or the NBA draft. Robert Morris' Andy Toole and Mount St. Mary's Robert Burke inherit two of the Northeast Conference's top programs, so it wouldn't surprise me if one of them earns that league's automatic bid. Clemson has reached the NCAA tournament three consecutive seasons and made a really solid hire in getting Brad Brownell from Wright State, so maybe the Tigers overcome the loss of Trevor Booker and go dancing again. And keep an eye on Kevin Willard at Seton Hall and Steve Lavin at St. John's. Seton Hall got a huge boost when Jeremy Hazell, Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson withdrew their names from draft consideration, while Lavin has a senior-dominated roster at St. John's. Both teams could make major moves up the Big East standings.

Q. WHICH BIG SIX COACH IS ON THE HOTTEST SEAT GOING INTO NEXT SEASON?

David Fox: The past four seasons have shown just how little N.C. State thought of Herb Sendek, haven't they? The Wolfpack went to the NCAA tournament in each of Sendek's last five seasons. Since then, Sidney Lowe has led North Carolina State to two NIT appearances in four years. With the nation's fifth-ranked recruiting class, this may be the make-or-break year for Lowe, who has yet to win more than six ACC games in a season.

Mike Huguenin: I'm surprised Sidney Lowe still is coach at N.C. State, so I think he is on the hottest seat of all. NCSU officials ran off Herb Sendek even though Sendek's team was a regular NCAA visitor. His offense was seen as too boring. Well, Lowe's certainly hasn't been scintillating, either, and he has just two NIT trips in four seasons to show for it. Lowe and his staff reeled in a big-time recruiting class, and if the Wolfpack don't make the 2011 NCAA tourney, there will be a new coach overseeing all that talent next year at this time.

Jason King: Nebraska coach Doc Sadler is one of the nicest guys in college sports and is an excellent Xs and Os coach. But his inability to recruit Big 12-caliber talent to Lincoln has put his job in jeopardy.

Steve Megargee: North Carolina State reached the NCAA tournament in each of Herb Sendek's last five years on the job and hasn't been back since. That's bad news for Sidney Lowe, who is heading into his fifth season since taking over for Sendek, now the coach at Arizona State. The Wolfpack have gone a combined 20-44 in ACC competition and have never finished higher than ninth in the conference during Lowe's tenure. Lowe has kept his job at least in part because of an incoming recruiting class that ranks fifth in the nation. North Carolina State's freshman class next season includes 6-foot-7 forward C.J. Leslie (the No. 14 prospect in the nation), 6-0 guard Ryan Harrow (No. 19) and 6-4 guard Lorenzo Brown (No. 37) next season. If the Wolfpack fail to show significant progress after bringing in three of the nation's top 37 recruits, Wolfpack officials may decide it's time to move on.



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