It’s rarely easy for a head coach to lead a program to glory in his first year at the helm. Teams take time to gel, and squads that have clear identities tend to evade speed bumps that ones who are soul-searching don’t.
Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech
Picked to finish 14th in the ACC preseason poll, Pastner has done an excellent job thus far in Atlanta. The change of scenery has proved beneficial; the former Memphis head man has Georgia Tech playing like maniacs on defense, as the Yellow Jackets have a top-10 unit on that side of the ball. Tech is 6-6 in the best conference in the land and has wins over North Carolina, Notre Dame and Florida State at home.
The offense is a different story. The Jackets rank 253rd in the country in offensive efficiency, but once Pastner gets some of his own players in the fold, that number will rise.
These Yellow Jackets have completely bought in, and Pastner deserves major props.
Jamie Dixon, TCU
Dixon made the NCAA tournament 11 times in 13 years at Pittsburgh, and he’s working wonders at his alma mater this season. Similar to those Panther teams, these Horned Frogs are spectacular nowhere, but solid across the board. TCU has a top-50 offense and defense, and at 17-8, they’re in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid.
TCU rebounded from a four-game losing streak in January to win its next three. The Horned Frogs haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1998, so if Dixon can break the draught, it will be a massive deal for a program that hasn’t had much success lately.
Brad Underwood, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State went 12-20 last season and didn’t sniff the NCAA tournament. This year, Underwood is guiding the second-best offense in the country to great heights. The Cowboys have won five of their past six games after starting 0-6 in the Big 12, and Oklahoma State is one of the most exciting teams to watch in the land.
Underwood, the former coach at Stephen F. Austin, has handed the offensive keys to star point guard Jawun Evans. Sometimes, the simplest answer is the best answer; Evans is averaging 25.7 points and 7.8 assists per 40 minutes for the Cowboys, and his supporting cast is rounding into form.
Underwood to Oklahoma State looked like a home-run hire in the moment. That’s proving to be the case.
Tim Jankovich, SMU
Jankovich inherited a talented Mustangs roster, and he’s making the most of it. SMU is the No. 19 team in the country and boasts a 22-4 record; the Mustangs have lost one game since Dec. 2.
SMU has played slow in recent years, but Jankovich has taken its deliberate style to a new level. The Mustangs rank 337th in the nation in adjusted tempo, but they’re fundamentally sound and efficient on offense – SMU hits almost 40 percent of its triples and ranks fourth in the nation in offensive rebounding rate.
Defensively, the Mustangs are stingy as usual – a team hasn’t scored 70 points or more on them since November. Jankovich deserves a ton of credit for SMU’s excellent play.
Chris Beard, Texas Tech
Texas Tech has a good chance to reach the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row behind Beard, who guided Little Rock to an upset victory last March.
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The Red Raiders also came within one point of shocking Kansas in Lubbock on Saturday. Tubby Smith made Texas Tech relevant again, and Beard is picking up right where Smith left off. We’ll see if Tech can make some noise as the season winds down.
Tubby Smith, Memphis
Memphis had a woeful 2015-16 by its standards, going 8-10 in the AAC and missing the NCAA tournament. But the Tigers are making progress under Smith, who also helped turn around Texas Tech – Memphis is 18-8 and has an 8-5 conference record. Tough games at Cincinnati and SMU loom, but the Tigers took the latter down to the wire in December.
The advanced metrics don’t look much different than they did last season for Memphis, but the Tigers are winning close games this time around. Memphis is 7-2 in contests decided by seven points or less; a pessimist would call that luck, but an optimist would (correctly) point out that tight-game success is often a reflection of the coach. Better days are likely yet to come for the Memphis program, but Smith has had a solid first year.