Forget Selection Sunday, March Madness or even the Final Four. The most entertaining part of the men’s college basketball season is often the deal-cutting soap opera that is the coaching carousel.
Now that most of the chairs in this season’s game of coaching musical chairs are filled, here is one take on the winners and the losers:
WINNER: Tubby Smith. Three years after being (unjustly) fired at Minnesota, the ex-Kentucky head man rebuilt Texas Tech from hoops irrelevancy into an NCAA Tournament team. He has now parlayed that into the head coaching job at Memphis, where one can far more realistically aspire to high-level success than at Tech — the ninth-best basketball job in the 10-school Big 12.
LOSER: Tubby Smith. In terms of “fit,” Tubby and Memphis do not seem an ideal match. To succeed at Memphis, a coach has to be able to lure top players to an urban school in a gritty city. That usually means recruiting the big cities hard. Among key players that played for Memphis and John Calipari in the 2008 NCAA championship game were those from Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago as well as one from Memphis.
While the city of Memphis is considered a bountiful source of basketball talent, recruiting there requires a coach willing and able to navigate a — how should we put this? — complicated recruiting environment (the University of Memphis has vacated six NCAA Tournament appearances, after all).
Furthermore, with Memphis locked outside the Power Five conference cartel, a successful coach there has to be a promoter, a guy who can keep Tigers basketball front and center on a national scale.
Do any of these qualities scream Tubby Smith?
What Memphis is getting is an unusually decent person, a very good X’s and O’s strategist and a coach with a knack for succeeding as an underdog. That combination was working at Texas Tech. At Memphis, whether it will seems uncertain at best.
WINNER: Vanderbilt. In landing Bryce Drew, Vandy appears to have won the coaching carousel lottery. Drew, 41, has five years of head-coaching experience, having led Valparaiso to two NCAA Tournament appearances and a runner-up finish in the 2016 NIT. Still famous for the 1998 NCAA tourney buzzer beater he hit as a Valpo player to beat Mississippi, Drew would seem to have the pizzazz to finally allow Vanderbilt, a “basketball school” that has never made a Final Four, to get to the proverbial “next level.”
LOSER: Pittsburgh. The knock on Jamie Dixon in his 13 years as Panthers head man is that, in 11 NCAA Tournament trips, he only made it to the round of 16 three times with one Elite Eight. So Pitt’s solution was to hire Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings — who in 17 years at Vandy, made it to the round of 16 twice.
That’s one fewer times than Dixon.
WINNER: TCU. For a school that hasn’t won an NCAA tourney game since 1987, luring a coach as accomplished as Jamie Dixon (see above) back to his alma mater is beyond a grand slam.
LOSER: Georgia Tech. The Techsters fired Brian Gregory after the ex-Dayton head man concluded a 21-15 season. Tech then hired a coach, Josh Pastner, who went 19-15 this past year at Memphis.
Pastner, 38, will be an interesting case study. He was once considered one of coaching’s rising stars (130-44 in first five years at Memphis). Going 37-29 over his last two seasons, however, removed Pastner’s glow. Still, sometimes people do learn from early experience and apply those lessons to create subsequent success. It will be fascinating to see if Pastner can revive his once-promising career in the cut-throat ACC.
WINNER: American Athletic Conference. The American — the football-playing remnants of the old Big East — has added an NCAA championship winner (Tubby Smith at Memphis), a longtime NBA head man (Mike Dunleavy Sr. at Tulane), and a coach who is genuine Duke royalty (Johnny Dawkins at Central Florida).
For a league struggling to stay nationally visible, it’s been a boffo offseason.
LOSER: UNLV. When the Runnin’ Rebels’ coaching search began, the first name mentioned was Rick Pitino. When nothing came of that, the school went all-in with Cincinnati head man Mick Cronin, only to end up jilted near the altar. Ultimately, Vegas settled on Chris Beard, who led Arkansas-Little Rock (30-5) to an NCAA tourney upset of Purdue this past season, his only one as UALR head coach.
Beard, 43, may turn out to be a fine choice. But when you start out talking about trying to hire a guy with two NCAA titles and end up with a guy who has one year as a Divison I head coach, it’s a bit of a letdown.
After all that, speculation was rampant Thursday that Beard, a former Texas Tech assistant under Bobby Knight, may be the top candidate for the Red Raiders position left vacant by Tubby Smith.
So a dispiriting UNLV search may still morph into something worse.