From Neal to Whitford
Some new head coaches faring better than others in first season
So how are the new guys doing? The coaches, not the players.
Forty-five Division I men’s college basketball teams made coaching changes this season. Some places, it’s meant better days. Some places, so far, it hasn’t. At the close of business Sunday, only 12 of the 45 had winning records. In the new rankings Monday, only New Mexico (25) and Craig Neal were ranked.
Not that any of the above is surprising, since coaching moves and troubled programs tend to come in pairs. But not always. With March nearing, we can catch up on some of the debuts.
For rapid improvement, note Bobby Hurley and Mike Brennan.
Buffalo went 14-20 last season and 7-9 in the Mid-American Conference. Hurley -- the guard who stirred Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke formula for so many years -- now has the Bulls 16-8, and leaders in their division at 10-4 in his first season as a head coach. Buffalo has never been to the NCAA tournament. Its coach played in three Final Fours.
American was 10-20 last season. With Brennan, a former Georgetown assistant who played for Pete Carril at Princeton, the Eagles are 16-11. They started 10-0 in the Patriot League, before losing four of their past six. American has some curious offensive numbers. The Eagles are third in the nation with 50.2 percent field-goal shooting, but 309th in the nation in scoring at 65.2.
Neal replaced UCLA-bound Steve Alford at New Mexico, both of them products of Indiana high school basketball. Last year, the Lobos were 24-6. They’re 21-5 now, and just got a signature win with an upset of San Diego State. “I’ve never been around 14 guys who have really bought into what a new coaching staff is trying to do, what a new coach is trying to do, believing in us, believing in our game plans,” Neal said after that victory. ”It’s been coming, and I knew it was coming.”
Underwood, an assistant at South Carolina, took over at Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks were noteworthy last season for going 27-4 and still not getting into the NCAA tournament. Now they’re 25-2, winners of 31 in a row at home after a walk-off breakaway slam during the weekend, and have five players averaging in double figures. Maybe this year.
For orderly line of succession, there’s Joe Dooley, the new mayor of Dunk City.
Dooley was put in charge at Florida Gulf Coast, post-Andy Enfield and post-fairy tale. The Eagles have not taken down any heavyweights yet -- circa the 2013 NCAA tournament -- but they are 19-10, share the lead in the Atlantic Sun, and are closing in on 100 on the dunk-o-meter. So all seems well.
The two new faces in southern California are on very different Los Angeles freeways, one in the fast lane, one congested at a near standstill.
Alford is 21-6 at UCLA, and has the nation’s top triple threat in Kyle Anderson with his 14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.9 assists a game. The last Bruin to own numbers like that was named Bill Walton.
Alford’s chief woe has been his team’s mystifying troubles on the second game of Pac-12 road weekends. The Bruins blew through ranked Colorado, then lost at Utah. Won at Oregon, which is not easy to do, then were promptly upset at Oregon State. Pounded California, then were drubbed at Stanford. “We’re taking hits,” forward Tony Parker said. “It’s February, we need to turn it up.”
Speaking of taking hits, Enfield’s first season at Southern California has not been nearly as much fun as his last glorious March at Florida Gulf Coast. The Trojans are 10-17 and 1-13 in the Pac-12 after losing eight in a row. The second half has been big trouble for USC, the Trojans getting outscored in those eight defeats 363-291 after halftime.
The grind of life in the Big Ten should now be evident to the new men on the block.
Chris Collins pulled off some heartening early wins at Northwestern, beating Indiana and Wisconsin. But the Wildcats have lost five in a row and are now 12-16.
Richard Pitino is 17-11 at Minnesota and won at Wisconsin and Ohio State. But the Gophers have dropped six of eight, and some of the mistakes have him pacing the sidelines even faster than his father. “We hijack ourselves,” he said. “We do some things turnover-wise that are just inexplicable.”
The man Pitino replaced at Minnesota, Tubby Smith, has had his moments at Texas Tech, beating Baylor and Oklahoma State, and nearly taking down Kansas. The Red Raiders lost 20 games last season, so the 13-14 record represents progress.
Alas, there have been some rocky first trips, as well. Brandon Miller lost his best player to injury before his first Butler game, and everyone was wondering how the Bulldogs would do the first time around in the Big East oven.
Now everyone knows. Butler is 2-13 in the league.
Just up the road, James Whitford traded a nice comfortable spot as associate head coach at mighty Arizona to take over Ball State. The Cardinals are 4-21.
Such is the reality of the world of many new coaches. Watch that first step. It can be a doozy.