Wednesday, April 10, 2013

College Basketball 2012-13 Review: The Nation's Top 10 First-Year Coaching Jobs

Last May, I ran down a ranking of every college basketball coaching change made official at the time. A few more trickled in, including a Hall of Famer bailing to elevate his former point guard at UConn.

With the season now complete, which guys performed the best in their new jobs? Once again, to clarify, we're talking about coaches in their first year at a new school, not necessarily men in their first seasons ever as head coaches.

Some of these coaches may become hot names a la new USC coach Andy Enfield if lightning strikes right next season. Some may be out of jobs this time next year. For now, though, these 10 men did great work following a change of scenery.

10. Mike Davis, Texas Southern
--It's a long way from the 2002 national championship game, but in his first season at Texas Southern, Mike Davis crushed nearly all SWAC opposition.

The former Indiana and UAB coach took the Tigers to a 16-2 conference record, good enough for the SWAC regular season title. That was, unfortunately, where the road ended, as Academic Progress Rate (APR) sanctions made TSU ineligible for postseason play.

Texas Southern finished among the top 20 teams nationally in three-point attempts and makes, drilling nearly 36 percent of those shots. Four Tigers were named to the three All-SWAC teams, making TSU the only school with that many representatives.

“Coach Davis came in and changed everything,’’ point guard Dexter Ellington said to the Albany (Ga.) Herald. “The fact we couldn’t go to the tournament stayed with us all year, but we played hard and left everything on the court.’’

Davis was named a finalist for the Ben Jobe Award, given annually to America's top minority coach and won by UConn's rookie boss Kevin Ollie, another coach who missed the postseason due to prior APR violations.

Considering the struggles that NCAA top seed Gonzaga went through to finish SWAC tournament champion Southern University, it stands to reason that Texas Southern may have missed a chance at history.

9. Bruce Weber, Kansas State
--The last time Bruce Weber took over a coaching job, he led the Illinois Fighting Illini to the NCAA championship game. This season, Kansas State didn't quite get that far, but the Wildcats' 27-8 record was the school's second best since Tex Winter's teams of the early 1960s.

KSU tied the hated Kansas Jayhawks for the Big 12 regular season title, the school's first piece of a championship since 1977. Still, State was unable to get over in any of its three meetings with KU, including the conference tournament final.

A two-point loss to 13th-seeded La Salle in KSU's NCAA tournament opener left a sour taste, but considering the one-armed status of point guard Angel Rodriguez, the game probably shouldn't have been as close as it was.

For the season, KSU was one of America's top 50 in rebound percentage and assist percentage and near the top 10 on the offensive glass. Weber swept the Big 12's coach of the year awards, only the third man to win the award in his first Big 12 season.

Now, the question becomes whether Weber can sustain the momentum.

8. Jack Perri, LIU-Brooklyn

--There wasn't a steep learning curve for LIU Brooklyn's players in getting to know new coach Jack Perri. After all, he'd been an assistant under previous boss Jim Ferry for seven years.

Perri didn't inherit a program lacking for talent, as he had three proven All-Northeast Conference performers on the roster. Still, he had to lead the Blackbirds through preseason suspensions and the loss of leading scorer Julian Boyd to a December ACL tear.

Through it all, the Blackbirds remained one of the nation's highest-scoring teams at 78.7 points per game (fourth nationally), as well as being among the most efficient offenses (1.12 points per possession, 14th in America). LIU finished in the top 30 in overall field goal percentage and three-point percentage.

LIU swept to its third straight NEC tournament championship and thereby its third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

Perri was named the winner of the Joe B. Hall Award, which is presented annually to college basketball's best first-year head coach. Perri beat out other rookie bench bosses like UConn's Kevin Ollie and FIU's Richard Pitino for the award.

7. Donnie Tyndall, Southern Miss
--Southern Mississippi was expected to fade into Conference USA also-ran status when head coach Larry Eustachy left. After all, five of the team's top seven scorers also departed, leaving former Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall to rebuild around point guard Neil Watson and a host of new faces.

The Golden Eagles didn't get back to the NCAA tournament, but Tyndall nearly set a record nonetheless. USM's 27 wins fell only two short of the school's all-time record, set back in 1951-52 when Southern Miss was still a member of the NAIA. The total is a record for USM's Division I era.

Southern Miss ranked among the top 50 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, sixth in offensive rebounding percentage and fourth in steal percentage, according to

Nearly 6,000 fans came out for a 9 p.m. tipoff in the second round of the NIT, a measure of how the fan base has taken to USM basketball. Not bad for a school whose top job Tyndall was advised to pass over.

"People said it's a football school," Tyndall told the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald. "'...they're never going to support basketball. Why would you take the job?'"

Considering that half of Conference USA is soon headed to the new American Athletic Conference and reinforcements are being mined from the Sun Belt and the WAC, Tyndall could be in position to build a dynasty in Hattiesburg. Why take the job, indeed?

6. Richard Pitino, Florida International
--The FIU Golden Panthers had to replace 86 percent of their scoring from the 2011-12 season, which left rookie head coach Richard Pitino in a difficult situation. Forced to cobble together a team from role players, junior college transfers and freshmen, all Pitino managed to do was win 18 games and finish three points short of the school's second-ever NCAA tournament appearance.

That's all?

To put the victories in perspective, former NBA superstar Isiah Thomas managed all of 19 wins during his three seasons as FIU's head coach. FIU hadn't had a winning season in 13 years.

Pitino got his crew to buy in to his pressure defense, making the Panthers one of the top 10 teams in America in steals and turnovers forced per game. That style was expected to be one that would draw recruits to sunny Florida, but now it'll be drawing players to snowy Minnesota, where Pitino was hired last week as the new head coach.

Pitino's gone from an assistant for his father to Big Ten head coach in just one season. That, friends, is the very definition of the fast track.

5. John Groce, Illinois

--If you graphed Illinois' season geometrically (which would make sense, since John Groce is an ex-geometry teacher), it would make a beautiful sine wave.

The 12-0 start, which included a Maui Invitational title and a win at Gonzaga, was an impressive peak, followed by that steep dive through the first half of Big Ten play. The 2-7 start was followed by wins in six of seven, then losses in three of four heading into the NCAA tournament. Nothing was consistent except inconsistency from the Illini.

A controversial call in the NCAA second-round game against Miami may have swung the result, otherwise the ex-Ohio coach would have led a second school to the Sweet 16 in consecutive years.

Groce handled his team's up-and-down performance as well as could be expected, considering there isn't a lot of statistical reasoning for why they were winning in the first place. The Illini were ninth in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (41.2 percent), sixth in offensive rebounding percentage (33.1) and 11th in assist-turnover ratio (0.89). All this from a team that ranked second in America with 873 three-point attempts and made only 32 percent of those.

Much of Groce's best work was done in massaging the egos bruised during that slow Big Ten start.

Brandon Paul told ESPN Chicago that Groce's overarching message was "Don't give in. [...] Don't let what outsiders say affect us. I think that's definitely been in our minds. A lot of people doubted us when we went through that rough stretch. He's a guy with unbelievable energy. He comes in every day and he gives us the passion to want to compete and get better every day. That's something you need in a coach."

With Paul and six others leaving, Groce will need to tailor that message for an all-new audience next season. If he can and the new faces are productive, Illinois could compete again in a Big Ten full of contenders in flux.

4. Larry Eustachy, Colorado State
--The ex-Southern Miss coach inherited one of the most experienced teams in America, one that was coming off a trip to the NCAA tournament under predecessor Tim Miles, who left for Nebraska. What Miles didn't do, however, was deliver the Rams' first March Madness win since 1989, when CSU was led by the immortal Pat Durham.

Somehow, a team that played only two men taller than 6'6" finished first nationally in defensive rebounding percentage and second on the offensive glass. Point guard Dorian Green put that on Eustachy and his staff.

“With Coach and the staff, their specialty is what we lacked the most, so I think it was just a perfect fit for us,’’ Green said. “We got a little bit tougher and our defensive rebounding is where we lacked last year. So I think it was just the perfect fit. We couldn’t ask for anything better.’’

The staff even unlocked the potential of 6'10" center Colton Iverson, who went from a career 5.3-4.3 man at Minnesota to 14.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game under Eustachy. "When coach Miles left, I was a little nervous," Iverson said. "But when I saw they were bringing in coach Eustachy, I knew we'd be all right. He's won at every school he's been at."

The guy who appeared in legen...wait for it...dary pictures of partying with Mizzou coeds has been replaced by the one who drains 14 Diet Cokes per day and is marking his 10th year of sobriety this month. That performance makes the one his Rams put together on the court seem trivial, and yet all the more impressive.

3. Kevin Ollie, UConn
--Like Mike Davis, Kevin Ollie walked into a head coaching job leading a team with nothing to play for. The APR sanctions banning UConn from postseason play caused a few defections, most notably Alex Oriakhi bolting for Missouri. The guys that stayed were expected to muddle through the season and settle in the bottom half of the Big East table.

While seventh place wasn't an earth-shattering finish, a 20-10 record with a 10-8 conference mark would have likely gotten UConn into the dance if eligible. The Back Iron Index ranked the Huskies 45th, just behind Oklahoma, ahead of Southern Miss and two spots above the play-in games (one of which was Boise State vs. La Salle, thank you very much).

The Huskies started the year with a win over Michigan State in Germany and never really slumped from there, unless you count the three-game losing streak that included a double-OT loss to a sizzling Georgetown and road losses at Cincinnati and South Florida.

Along the way, junior guard Shabazz Napier developed into a first-team All-Big East performer, Omar Calhoun earned a spot on the league's All-Rookie team, and DeAndre Daniels averaged 21 points, nine rebounds and three blocks over his final four games. If Napier decides to return, those three plus Napier's backcourt mate Ryan Boatright will make UConn a prime contender for the first American Athletic Conference title.

For his efforts, Ollie was named the winner of the Ben Jobe Award and was also a finalist for the Joe B. Hall Award. Not bad for a guy whose athletic director didn't give him a long-term contract until a month into the season.

2. Jim Baron, Canisius
We'll assume that's powdered sugar on the stache.  

--The Golden Griffins won a whopping five games in 2011-12. They won 20 this year, thanks to a strong influx of transfers, Division I and otherwise.

Three of Canisius' top four scorers were imports from other schools, led by Baron's son Billy, who shot his way to first-team All-MAAC honors. Guard Isaac Sosa (UCF) and forward Jordan Heath (new NCAA Division II member Roberts Wesleyan) also established themselves as solid starters, with Sosa finishing second in the MAAC in three-point percentage, trailing only teammate Harold Washington.

Most of the transfers, with the obvious exception of Billy Baron, were originally recruited by former coach Tom Perrotta, but Baron managed to keep them all through the transition with the promise of an up-tempo style with plenty of shots to go around. Canisius finished top-40 nationally in offensive efficiency and eFG%, indicating that the players made the most of their opportunities.

The Griffs hadn't played in the postseason in 17 years, since current Michigan coach John Beilein took them to the NCAA tournament. That's still the only Big Dance trip CC has taken since the 1950s, but Baron took a step in the right direction in getting them to the CIT quarterfinals. For his efforts, Baron was named a finalist for the Hugh Durham Award.

1. Jim Crews, Saint Louis
--When Rick Majerus called to offer him a job in October 2011, Jim Crews was coaching an eighth-grade girls' team. Little did Crews know that he would be replacing Majerus within a year and attending his funeral mere months after that.

A grieving team poured its energy into winning, to the tune of a school record 28 victories, the first regular-season conference title since a Missouri Valley crown in 1971, SLU's highest AP ranking since 1964-65 and only the school's fifth NCAA tournament win.

The Billikens did it with a grinding defense that ranked among the 10 most efficient in America, holding opponents to a mere 58.2 points per game and forcing turnovers on 23.6% of opponents' possessions.

The NABC and the Sporting News both named Crews their National Coach of the Year, but there are still no guarantees that he will even get the "interim" tag taken off his title. Majerus's relationship with university brass was strained, and a move could still be made to cut ties with the late coach's staff, including Crews.

Whether he's back or not, Crews has added an extra flourish to the work Majerus started in making Saint Louis a relevant college basketball program again. The job may never again be as attractive as it is right now.

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