Ranking the 10 best coaching hires heading into this season
It was a relatively quiet Coaching Carousel in 2017-18 considering everything that happened in the sport of college basketball in the past year, but there still were seven high-major jobs that changed hands as well as a number of spots in leagues like the Atlantic 10, the Mountain West and the bottom of the American.
Not every hire made this offseason made waves, and not every decision to fire a head coach resulted in a lawsuit, but there was plenty to make the 2018-19 season fascinating for a handful of programs.
Let’s take a look back on some of those big name coaching decisions.
Who made the best hires?
Did anyone make a head-scratching decision?
Who is guaranteed success?
Who is locked into failure?
Here are the 10 best hires of the carousel.
1. CHRIS MACK, Louisville
Chris Mack may have not been here before, but it was something close. When he took over Xavier from Sean Miller in 2009, there were high expectations associated with succeeding a wildly successful coach. The situation is different for him now in Louisville - he’s following one of the most accomplished coaches in the history of the game at one of its most storied programs and amid NCAA (and FBI) scrutiny - but the idea is the same. Win now, and win big.
Mack seems equipped to do both. He kept things rolling at Xavier, making the Musketeers a powerhouse, first in the Atlantic 10 and then in the Big East. He’s already scoring wins on the recruiting trail, which is going to be more indicative of his long-term success with the Cardinals than anything. He’s a proven winner and seemingly the perfect man to take over a high profile job in a tough situation.
2. DAN HURLEY, UConn
There haven’t been many high-profile hires in recent years that seem to just make as much sense as this one. UConn has a sense of urgency to return to prominence following a seemingly instant slide into mediocrity under coach Kevin Ollie after capturing the 2014 national championship. Hurley has made his name - well he’s built on the name his father, legendary prep coach Bob, put on the map and his brother, Bobby, helped perpetuate - in the northeast and would seem perfect to recruit the prep school circuit that has so much talent in the area. Getting the Huskies back to where Jim Calhoun had them seems maybe an impossible task in today’s landscape, but Hurley has the resume and talent to get them out of this rut and back competing for league titles and national relevance.
3. PENNY HARDAWAY, Memphis
My favorite hire of the offseason. Tubby Smith is undoubtedly a fine basketball coach, but he’s not exactly injecting a ton of excitement into a program. That was clear toward the end of his tenure in Memphis, which was hemorrhaging cash amid falling attendance figures and an even sharper decline in hope. Enter the most decorated and beloved player in program history, with an All-Star NBA career and all the Memphis recruiting ties any booster could dream of. Penny Hardaway may have zero experience coaching beyond the high school level, but he clearly resonates with recruits and adding Sam Mitchell to his staff should help whatever Xs and Os and organizational issues he’ll need to sort through. Hardaway is unproven, but he’s exciting as hell. The moves he’s already made in assembling his staff and getting to work on the recruiting trail suggest there’s substance to the style, too.
4. JEFF CAPEL, Pittsburgh
This is an interesting spot for Capel. He’s had success as a head man at VCU and Oklahoma, but also experienced how fleeting all that can be in his final two seasons with the Sooners. A seven year stint on the bench with Coach K, a host of five-star recruits to your credit and a national championship on your resume is enough to get another high-major chance, though. Despite its historical success, Pitt is a more difficult job now in the ACC than when it was in the Big East, but it’s still got cache. Capel already has the Panthers involved with some high-level recruits - but it’ll be if he can reel them in that will ultimately decide how his third go-round leading a program is judged.
5. TOM CREAN, Georgia
This wasn’t exactly an exciting hire for the Bulldogs after Crean’s tenure in Indiana sort of petered out, but that’s probably not giving Crean enough credit for all he accomplished in - and the players he brought to - Bloomington. No, he’s not the exciting up-and-comer who brought Dwyane Wade to Marquette anymore, but Crean still won a ton of games with the Hoosiers. He’s also widely regarded in the industry as a serious grinder who didn’t just cash TV checks in his time off the bench, but rather continued to learn and study. Maybe he won’t have runaway success in Athens, but I think something like what Rick Barnes has done at Tennessee is very much a possibility.
6. ASHLEY HOWARD, La Salle
La Salle was never able to capitalize on its Sweet 16 appearance of 2013, with three losing seasons and two others one game above .500 following John Giannini’s second weekend run. The Explorers had eight seasons of sub-.500 ball in Giannini’s 14 seasons at the helm, in fact. So it makes a lot of sense to look across town on Jay Wright’s staff for an answer. Howard has had assistant stints at La Salle, Drexel and Villanova, where he won a couple of national championships, so his Big 5 credentials are impeccable. It’s hard to imagine La Salle doing better than this hire.
7. JAMION CHRISTIAN, Siena
Somehow, Siena went from an ugly breakup with Jimmy Patsos to snagging a 36-year-old head coach who already been to two NCAA tournaments and recruited well enough to Mount St. Mary’s to be perpetually (or so it seemed) losing players to up-transfers. This is a hire that seems destined to succeed.
8. DANA FORD, Missouri State
With Creighton and Wichita State seeking out greener pastures, Missouri State is well positioned to compete year-in and year-out in the Missouri Valley Conference. Ford, 34, engineered a quick turnaround at Tennessee State before things started teetering in Years 3 and 4, but he’s well regarded and would seem set up to succeed in an area the Illinois State graduate and one-time Wichita State assistant knows well.
9. TRAVIS STEELE, Xavier
If history is any guide, Travis Steele is going to win a ton of games with Xavier. From Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack, the Musketeers promote from within and then go on to win. It’s simply what they do. Steele’s resume leaves little doubt that it’ll continue yet again in Cincinnati.
10. NIKO MEDVED, Colorado State
After a tumultuous run and messy end, the marriage between Larry Eustachy and Colorado State came to an end this season, leaving the door open for the Rams to pursue ties to the staff that helped them to back-to-back NCAA tournaments in 2012 and 2013. Medved coached for Tim Miles as he built Colorado State into a contender, and then stuck around with Eustachy for a year as Colorado State earned an eight seed and tournament win. Then it was Furman, where he improved their win total every year before leaving for a one-year stop at Drake. Medved knows what it takes to win in Fort Collins, and he’s familiar with rebuilding jobs.