Mark Pope: Kentucky’s zone defense hurt Utah Valley
With the announcement that John Calipari has agreed to a “lifetime contract” to continue coaching men’s basketball at the University of Kentucky, there is no reason to think the UK head coaching job will open imminently.
Which is probably just as well.
Many of the elite programs in college hoops are presently led by head men who are, let’s say, not spring chickens. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is 74; Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is 72; North Carolina’s Roy Williams is 68; Michigan’s John Beilein is 66; Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is 64; and Calipari is 60.
At some point, some of the plum head coaching jobs in men’s college hoops will open. Yet there are few obvious choices from the “next generation” of coaches to fill those eventual marquee openings.
With John Pelphrey’s hiring by Tennessee Tech, there are now eight former Wildcats men’s basketball players who hold Division I head coaching jobs.
Is there a realistic scenario where any of them could emerge as a viable candidate to one day lead the UK men’s basketball program?
In alphabetical order, let’s review the career arcs of the ex-Cats presently coaching in men’s Division I:
Current job: Wyoming
Last season: 8-24
Career record: 51-52, 49.5 winning percentage, in three seasons at Wyoming
The skinny: After back-to-back 20-win seasons (23-15 in 2016-17 and 20-13 in 2017-18) to begin his Wyoming head coaching career, Edwards saw his team suffer through an injury-ravaged slog in 2018-19. The 8-24 season seems to have Edwards, the former UK swingman (1994-98), on the hot seat entering 2019-20.
Wyoming Athletics Director Tom Burman told the Casper Star Tribune “I’m not going to say we’ve got to win x (number of games) to continue down the same (coaching) path, but we’ve got to make dramatic improvement.”
Current job: Saint Louis
Last season: 23-13, won Atlantic 10 Tournament. As No. 13 seed, lost in NCAA Tournament round of 64 to No. 4 Virginia Tech 66-52
Career record: 330-276, 54.5 winning percentage, in 19 seasons at Eastern Kentucky (five years), Massachusetts (three), Oklahoma State (eight), and Saint Louis (three).
The skinny: The ex-UK point guard (1991-94) has now led three schools, EKU (2005), Oklahoma State (five times) and Saint Louis (2019), to the NCAA Tournament. Alas, Ford is 1-7 in NCAA tourney games, 1-5 at Oklahoma State.
Current job: Manhattan
Last season: 11-21
Career record: 127-131, 49.2 winning percentage, in eight seasons, all at Manhattan
The skinny: Masiello, a former UK walk-on guard (1996-2000), coached Manhattan to back-to-back NCAA Tournament trips in 2014 and 2015. The Jaspers are 48-78 in the four seasons since.
Current job: Evansville
Last season: 11-21
Career record: 11-21, 34.4 winning percentage, in one season
The skinny: McCarty, a former Kentucky power forward (1993-96), achieved the highlight of his first season on Jan. 8 when the Purple Aces applied a 67-48 bludgeoning to 2018 Final Four entrant Loyola-Chicago. However, Evansville struggled down the stretch, losing 12 of its final 14 games.
Current job: Samford
Last season: 17-16
Career record: 74-92, 44.6 winning percentage, in five seasons, all at Samford
The skinny: The ex-Kentucky power forward (1994-98) has one 20-win season (2016 in 2016-17) as Samford head man. He might have had another this past season, but losing point guard Christen Cunningham to Louisville as a graduate transfer really hurt Samford in a top-heavy Southern Conference that included Wofford (30-5), UNC Greensboro (29-7), Furman (25-8) and East Tennessee State (24-10).
Current job: Tennessee Tech
Last season: Was an assistant at Alabama
Career record: 149-126, 54.2 winning percentage, in nine seasons at South Alabama (2002-07) and Arkansas (2007-2011).
The skinny: Pelphrey inherits a Tennessee Tech team that ranked 331st out of 351 teams in the final NCAA NET ratings after going 8-23 last season. The Golden Eagles have not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1963.
The former Kentucky Wildcats small forward (1987-1992) coached both South Alabama (2006) and Arkansas (2008) to the NCAA Tournament, reaching the round of 32 with the Razorbacks.
Current job: Brigham Young
Last season: 25-10 at Utah Valley, lost to South Florida, 66-57, in the second round of the College Basketball Invitational
Career record: 77-56, 57.9 winning percentage, in four seasons, all at Utah Valley
The skinny: A former Kentucky center (1994-96), Pope improved Utah Valley’s record from 12 wins to 17 to 23 to 25 in his four seasons. What Pope did not do is get his team past perennial Western Athletic Conference power New Mexico State and into the NCAA Tournament. Nevertheless, Pope produced enough success at Utah Valley to move up the coaching ladder to BYU.
Current job: Southern
Last season: 7-25 in his first season at Southern
Career record: 134-175, 43.4 winning percentage, in 10 seasons at Mississippi Valley State (four years), Morehead State (four full seasons and part of a fifth) and Southern (last season).
The skinny: Woods built Mississippi Valley State from 7-25 his first season (2008-09) to 21-13 and an NCAA Tournament berth (2011-12) in his fourth year. The former UK point guard (1989-92) also had a winning overall record at Morehead State (77-70 from 2012-2016).
However, Woods is trying to relaunch his head-coaching career after his Morehead tenure ended in controversy. Woods was charged with misdemeanor battery when two Eagles players accused the coach of assaulting them during a November 2016 game at Evansville.
Joe B. Hall (1972-85) is the last former Kentucky player to serve as UK head basketball coach.
Of the eight ex-Cats who are currently D-I head men, Pope is the one whose career seems on the ascendancy. Ford has, so far, had the most overall success.
Yet for either of them — or any of the six other former Kentucky players now serving as NCAA Division I head coaches — to even get in the conversation about the UK job in the future, it will require a substantial acceleration in career progression.