One of the fastest coaching carousels in recent memory in men’s college basketball is wrapping up. Every high-major job to open has been filled, including a pair of high-profile vacancies that popped open during the season at Maryland and Louisville. And in a world with a rapidly moving transfer portal, schools looked to strike quickly and fill vacancies as quickly as possible—in fact, just one high-major job was still open by the time the Final Four tipped off, and that job (Butler) was filled the next day by Thad Matta.
While grading coaching hires before they’ve coached a game may be a fool’s errand, I’ve taken on the challenge, anyway. Which programs should feel the best about the names they reeled in and which fan bases might be going through another coaching search sometime soon? Here are the best and worst of this year’s hiring cycle.
Seton Hall: Shaheen Holloway
Holloway won the hearts and minds of college basketball fans everywhere as the leader of Saint Peter’s during its miracle run to the Elite Eight. But the program he built at one of the more difficult places to win in Division I is highly impressive, even taking out the run through March Madness that made Holloway a national name. Finishing in the top three of the MAAC three years in a row at a program widely acknowledged to be the worst job in the league was enough to qualify him for the Seton Hall vacancy, particularly considering his background as a four-year starter for the Pirates in the late 1990s and his time as an assistant coach under Kevin Willard.
Holloway was an essential part of building Seton Hall into the perennial tournament contender they became under Willard, is well connected in recruiting around the state of New Jersey and throughout the Northeast and is clearly a strong program-builder. Plus, his players love playing for him, as evidenced by his entire Saint Peter’s team showing up at his introductory press conference at Seton Hall. This was a slam dunk.
Mississippi State: Chris Jans
Mississippi State is a “roll up your sleeves” job, and few are better suited to do just that than Jans. Jans got his start as a junior college head coach who won big in small towns across the country before making the jump into D-I and standing out as an assistant under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. Then, after an unceremonious departure at Bowling Green for inappropriate conduct, he became the latest coach to win big at New Mexico State, another job that requires scouring every avenue available to add talent. That tenure was capped by knocking off UConn in the NCAA tournament this March, just days before he officially departed for Starkville.
Would Jans have been the best coach for, say, Florida in this cycle? No. But so much of what makes hires succeed or fail is fit, and the fit between Jans and Mississippi State is perfect. I think he’s well equipped to get the most out of a program that is considered one of the trickiest places to win in the SEC.
Xavier: Sean Miller
Going four straight years without a men’s NCAA tournament bid was enough for Xavier to part ways with Travis Steele. In fact, that four-year run is the program’s longest stretch without a tournament bid since 1982, a stat that sums up just how good this job is. Enter Sean Miller, who returns to coaching after a year working in the media after being dismissed at Arizona. Miller’s time at Arizona was marred by revelations from the FBI investigation into college basketball that included allegations of Miller paying players, but in the five years before the scandal rocked the program, the Wildcats were a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament four times. Plus, Miller has experience at Xavier, where he spent five seasons as coach and took the Musketeers to the second weekend of the Big Dance twice.
The only thing that didn’t make this hire a complete no-brainer was the fact that the NCAA still hasn’t handed down punishments yet to all coaches involved in that infamous 2017 scandal. There’s a feeling around the sport that Miller will avoid an overly harsh punishment, particularly after Bruce Pearl’s suspension at Auburn was just two games. The NCAA dropping the hammer is pretty much the only way this hire won’t look like a slam dunk in 2–3 years.
Butler: Thad Matta
The way Butler parted ways with LaVall Jordan wasn’t exactly a master class in how to dismiss a coach, but it’s hard to argue with the end result of landing Matta, who finally makes his return to the sidelines after a five-year hiatus. Matta spent a year as the coach of Butler in the early 2000s before jumping to Xavier and, eventually, Ohio State, where he went to two Final Fours.
From a qualifications standpoint, this hire is a no-brainer. For Butler to be the program to bring Matta back seems like a huge win, particularly for one that clearly needed a jolt of energy after the last two seasons under Jordan. That said, a whole lot has changed in college basketball since Matta departed Ohio State, and Matta’s health has been a major reason he hasn’t taken a job before now. I have no doubt that Matta can still be a terrific basketball coach, but my slight questions about how he’ll be able to navigate a very new world in the sport prevents me from giving this hire an “A.”
Kansas State: Jerome Tang
Tommy Lloyd’s immediate success atop the Arizona program despite not having any head coaching experience warmed up more athletic directors to the idea of hiring top assistants from the high-major level. Tang was the most obvious Lloyd-like candidate: He had spent nearly 20 years on staff at Baylor, where he and Scott Drew built a program from the ground up into a national powerhouse and champion in 2021.
Tang’s certainly an accomplished recruiter, but was integral to all facets of Baylor’s rise and was critical in establishing the program’s culture. He knows the Big 12 extremely well, has deep recruiting ties in the Southwest and hired a terrific staff, headlined by former Texas assistant Ulric Maligi. Expect Tang to inject a new energy into this program quickly.
Georgia: Mike White
White parachuted within the SEC from Florida to Georgia after he had seemingly worn out his welcome in Gainesville. How you view his tenure with the Gators is essentially a Rorschach test for how you see the Florida job in the post–Billy Donovan era. White never finished worse than .500 in league play, would have reached five straight NCAA tournaments in a row heading into this past season if not for COVID-19 and won at least one game in all four Big Dances he made. He also recruited pro-level talent and went to an Elite Eight in 2017. But following the best coach a program has ever had is never easy, and White could never escape Donovan’s shadow.
Of course, Georgia hasn’t had nearly the success on the hardwood that Florida has had. If White was to accomplish exactly what he just accomplished at UF in Athens, it would be the most consistent run of success UGA has ever had. But how much harder is it to recruit and win at Georgia than Florida? I guess we’ll find out.
Florida: Todd Golden
There’s certainly some risk involved here for AD Scott Stricklin, who handed a top-20 program with national championship history to a 36-year-old with three years of head coaching experience and a 23–22 career record in the WCC. But Golden is universally lauded among industry insiders as a rising star in the profession, and what he was able to accomplish at San Francisco is far more impressive than his record indicates. He’s the first coach in two decades to bring a WCC team not named Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary’s to an at-large NCAA tournament berth, using an analytically savvy approach to build a winner at an under-resourced program.
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The big question here is whether Golden can navigate the tricky recruiting waters of the SEC against powerhouses like John Calipari, Eric Musselman, Rick Barnes, Bruce Pearl and Nate Oats. Early transfer signings of Will Richard (Belmont) and Alex Fudge (LSU) are a somewhat encouraging sign on that front.
Louisville: Kenny Payne
He may not have any head coaching experience, but Payne fits the mold that so many athletic directors have been looking for of late: former players with strong ties to the program who’ll connect different eras of the school’s basketball history. He starred at Louisville in the 1980s, winning a national championship in ’86 before being a first-round NBA pick. Add in the fact that Payne also was known as perhaps the most dynamic recruiter in college basketball at Kentucky before moving on to an assistant coaching position with the Knicks, and this hire checks a lot of boxes for a program in need of a refresh after the Chris Mack era.
Is it somewhat of a gamble to hire a coach without any head coaching experience? Yes, particularly at one of the 10 best jobs in the sport. Louisville has one of the strongest brands and histories in college hoops, and it should be able to pull a more accomplished name. Of course, more accomplished doesn’t necessarily mean more successful in time. Four years ago, Louisville hired a coach who earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament less than a month before he took the job and had been to three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight. That coach, Mack, didn’t even survive his fourth season.
Maryland: Kevin Willard
From the moment the Maryland job opened, Willard stood out as a likely candidate. In fact, Sports Illustrated’s preview of vacancy listed Willard as the top choice in the hours after it first opened back in December. But after swinging for the fences behind the scenes with some bigger names, the UMD search wound up returning to Willard, who headed to College Park after an 11-year stint at Seton Hall.
How you view this hire is, in some ways, a measure of how you view the job. In a cycle that saw virtually every other big job hire either a mid-major coach or someone without head coaching experience, Maryland landed a sitting high-major coach who, if not for COVID-19, would have taken his team to the NCAA tournament in six of the last seven years. On the other hand, a place that chewed up and spit out Mark Turgeon for his lack of tournament success just hired a coach with a 1–5 career record in the Big Dance and lost his last game as a Pirate by 27 points. If Maryland’s truly an elite job, that feels underwhelming. But if it’s simply a very good job, then this is a good hire.
Missouri: Dennis Gates
Gates has been a hot commodity for high-major ADs in the last two cycles after winning a share of the Horizon League in consecutive seasons. His eventual destination: Missouri, where he’ll look to turn around a program that got stale late in Cuonzo Martin’s tenure. Gates made his name in the profession on Leonard Hamilton’s staff at Florida State, and his quick rebuilding job at Cleveland State in his first head coaching test made him a solid fit for pretty much any high-major program.
Gates is clearly an accomplished recruiter and got the most out of his teams at Cleveland State. My lone concern: None of his CSU teams even cracked the top 150 in KenPom. Gates will likely bring some energy to the Mizzou program and won’t go 12–21 like Martin did this season, but will he build good enough teams to go to the NCAA tournament regularly?
LSU: Matt McMahon
As mentioned above with Golden, the primary challenge for all these SEC hires is whether they can recruit against some of the sport’s best. McMahon has two further challenges: Walking into a gutted roster (all but two scholarship players departed) and the potential for significant NCAA sanctions following the notice of allegations that got former coach Will Wade fired. Those two reasons are why LSU gave McMahon a seven-year contract: This is a rebuilding situation.
McMahon built some tremendous teams at Murray State. He coached and recruited Ja Morant and won an NCAA tournament game with him, then rebuilt and put together a team this season that had the best record of any men’s D-I team and advanced to the second round of the tourney. But it is worth noting that, well, everyone has won at Murray State. Three of Murray’s five worst KenPom finishes in the last 25 years came with McMahon at the helm. Was he a product of a program that churns out high-major coaches or a true standout?
South Carolina: Lamont Paris
Paris parlayed a 27-win season in 2021–22 into a high-major job at South Carolina, which moved on from Frank Martin after six straight years without an NCAA tournament berth. Paris wasn’t the program’s first choice, as the Gamecocks took swings at Miller and McMahon before eventually landing on the Chattanooga coach to take over in Columbia.
The biggest thing Paris brought to the Mocs was some stability. He slowly built a program from three conference wins in his first season to 14 in his final one, a stark contrast to the quick flips pulled off by Wade (LSU) and Matt McCall (UMass), who moved on after two seasons each. But does Paris have enough recruiting firepower to really keep up in the SEC, especially in the NIL era? I have my doubts.
Other notable hires
Archie Miller, Rhode Island: Pretty much a slam dunk here. Miller comes back to the Atlantic 10, where he had great success at Dayton, and brings some life to a URI program that struggled under David Cox. Grade: A
Steve Prohm, Murray State: The best kind of retread, Prohm went a ridiculous 104–29 in four years as the Racers’ coach and returns after six years at Iowa State and a year in the media. He had stayed close with the program and is the right guy to help Murray transition to the Missouri Valley. Grade: A
Frank Martin, UMass: Martin went to a Final Four at South Carolina, but things got stale lately. So far, he seems reenergized by the new challenge in Amherst, where his wife was a championship-level sprinter in the 1990s. Grade: A-
Eric Konkol, Tulsa: Won 20 or more games in six of his seven seasons at Louisiana Tech and was due for a jump. Enters an AAC in flux with impending departures of Houston, Cincinnati and UCF. Grade: B
Rob Lanier, SMU: Plenty of Texas ties from his time as a Rick Barnes assistant in Austin and coming off an NCAA tournament berth at Georgia State. Grade: B-
Steve Lavin, San Diego: This was a weird search, with AD Bill McGillis electing not to use a search firm and doing quite a bit of big-fish hunting. He eventually reeled in Lavin, who has been out of college hoops since 2015. He’s an accomplished recruiter, but can he move the needle in the WCC? This feels somewhat gimmicky. Grade: C
Fran Dunphy, La Salle: Dunphy’s a Philadelphia legend who’ll bring some local interest and some fundraising pop to a program that has seen better days financially. He’ll also be 74 years old by the time the 2022–23 season starts. I’m not sure how much success this experiment will bring on the court, or how long Dunphy actually plans on doing this. Grade: C-
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