These coaches may not receive votes for national Coach of the Year. Most operated at a level slightly below the college basketball radar. And they all entered different circumstances. Some took over established programs and were expected to maintain that level of success. Others were tasked with pulling a program from the cellar and building a winner in time. Regardless, each coach did a tremendous job in his first year at a new school.
Chris Beard, Little Rock
Despite a surprising 69-63 loss at Appalachian State last night, the Trojans still completed a 27-4 regular season - 14 more victories than last season - and won the Sun Belt Conference with a 17-3 record.
Beard, in his first season as a Division I coach after stints at DII programs McMurray State and Angelo State, steered UALR to success with stout defense. They are eighth in the nation in points allowed per possession (0.93) and seeking three victories in next week’s conference tournament in New Orleans and second NCAA tournament bid since 1990.
Steve Forbes, East Tennessee StateAfter several middling years under Murray Bartow, the former Tennessee assistant Forbes arrived in Johnson City aiming to restore a proud tradition - the Bucs made eight NCAA tournament appearances between 1989 and 2010. Consider a 21-10 overall record and second place in the Southern Conference a positive step. All-conference guards T.J. Cromer and Ge’Lawn Guyn give ETSU a chance this weekend in the SoCon Tournament in scenic Asheville, North Carolina.
Eran Ganot, Hawaii
The Rainbows third coach in three years, Ganot, 33, is thriving on the island where he served as an assistant to Riley Wallace from 2007 to 2010. He’s led Hawaii within two victories of the school record, 24-4. At 13-2 in the Big West they can clinch the outright conference championship by winning at Long Beach State on Saturday and there’s hope of the first NCAA berth since 2002.
Stingy defense limits opponents to an effective field goal percentage of .455 (20th in the nation) and versatile 6-11 forward Stefan Jankovic (16.3 ppg) leads a host of capable scorers.
Eric Konkol, Louisiana Tech
Another former assistant in his rookie campaign as the head man, Konkol left coach Jim Larranaga at Miami for Ruston, Louisiana and the Bulldogs. Things have gone quite well. La. Tech is 23-7 overall and tied for second in Conference USA (12-5) heading into a regular season finale at Western Kentucky on Saturday.
The Bulldogs are ferocious basket attackers, converting 52.9 percent of 2-point attempts (33rd in the nation) and reaching the free throw line with tremendous frequency (43.5 percent free throw rate).
Matt McCall, ChattanoogaMcCall learned plenty during nearly a decade at Florida under Billy Donovan, serving as manager, director of operations and assistant coach. Despite losing star Casey Jones to injury in December, the Mocs rolled to a 26-5 overall mark and the Southern Conference regular season championship, offering hope that the program’s 11th NCAA tournament appearance could be on the horizon.
McCall earned Southern Conference Coach of the Year honors for the effort and the Mocs start their quest toward joining the 68-team field Saturday against either VMI or Samford.
Jeff Neubauer, Fordham
The Rams are 16-12, have won three in a row, six more games than last season and clinched the program’s first winning season since 2006-07 - just the second since 1991-92.
Neubauer helped Fordham improve 70 spots nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency by unleashing an aggressive defense that forces opponents into turnovers on 22.5 percent of possessions (ninth best rate in the nation).
And there’s even better news for Big Apple hoops lovers. The future is promising. There are only two seniors among the Rams top seven players.
Montez Robinson, Alcorn State
From the season opener on November 19th until Dec. 21st. the Braves played 10 games. Nine were on the road or at a neutral site. The Braves had a 1-9 record when they went home for Christmas. They’ve gone 14-4 since and are second in the SWAC standings. Robinson is the program’s fourth coach since Davey Whitney led Alcorn to a 21-10 record and an NCAA appearance in 2001-02. The Braves (15-13) haven’t finished with a winning overall record since, but could accomplish the feat by tripping up regular season champion Texas Southern in Lorman, Mississippi on Saturday.
Will Wade, VCUThe Rams don’t operate under the radar these days; still, Wade deserves mention for molding an adequate but hardly overwhelming group of players to a 14-3 Atlantic 10 record, entering a stiff date at Dayton on Saturday. Wade has built atop the foundation laid by Shaka Smart, putting his stamp on the program and accomplishing something his former boss never did - winning at least a share of the regular season conference championship.
Melvin Johnson and the nation’s 23rd best defense are the main reasons the Rams are 22-8 and anticipating their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.