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Mike Lopresti | | December 16, 2019

Ranking the top 10 college basketball teams with 1st-year coaches

Dan Gavitt explains college basketball's NET rankings
The latest top-10 is in. No, not the usual one.
This is the Having-Fun-Yet? Top 10. Only teams with first-year coaches are eligible, and it measures how things are going for the new guys in town. Not necessarily the best 10 teams, but 10 teams that have accomplished something to keep the honeymoon alive for the coach in his first season. Actually there are 11 teams, since we have a tie for 10th.
Here's our list: 
No. 10 (tie), Jay McAuley, Wofford
OK, so maybe North Carolina didn’t have injured freshman phenom Cole Anthony, and Roy Williams has been pulling his hair out — not that he has all that much — trying to figure out his Tar Heels. Still, for Wofford to go into Chapel Hill and beat North Carolina Sunday was magical for the Terriers. “That was fun,” said McAuley, 7-4 in his first season. No wonder. It was only the school’s second win ever over a ranked opponent. The first was nearly two years ago to the day, against — oh, dear — North Carolina.
No. 10 (tie), Todd Golden, San Francisco
His Dons are 9-2, including a 76-64 win over California that gave San Francisco back-to-back victories over the Pac-12 school across the Bay Bridge for the first time in 32 years. Want to charm the fans in your new job? Score a lot. The Dons are putting up 84.6 points a game, eighth most in the nation. Here’s the irony. Golden was a San Francisco assistant last season. His assignment: Defensive coordinator.
No. 9 Casey Alexander, Belmont
No ordinary start would do for the Belmont alum replacing legend Rick Byrd in Nashville. The last time the Bruins needed a new coach was 1986, when gas was 93 cents a gallon, the Tennessee Titans were the Houston Oilers, and Alexander was 14 years old. Alexander’s first Belmont team had quite the liftoff, going into Boston College and whipping the ACC Eagles 100-85. They also swept the neighborhood Battle of the Boulevard two-game rivalry with Lipscomb, where Alexander coached last season. His first season is 7-3 so far and has been boosted by the blossoming of sophomore guard Adam Kunkel, who had 35 points against Boston College and is averaging nearly 19. Kunkel scored 2.3 points a game as a freshman.
No. 8 Dane Fischer, William & Mary
Know the first team in America to win four true road games this season? The 8-3 Tribe. Seven of their first 10 games were away from home, for a total tour of 9,178 miles, 2,443 of it by bus. But Fischer’s first team has carried on, led by one of the sport’s more unsung players, Nathan Knight and his nation-leading nine double-doubles. William & Mary led Oklahoma for 34 minutes before giving way 75-70. Fischer started 4-0, and no new coach had done that for the Tribe since 1944. The last William & Mary team to open the season with three road victories was 1935.
No. 7 Aaron McKie, Temple
McKie is the first Temple alum to take the job since Harry Litwack in 1952. No new coach had started 4-0 since 1942 or 6-1 since 1926, and McKie managed to do both. The Owls were picked to finish seventh in the American but look to exceed expectations with a defense ranked sixth in the nation in field goal percentage allowed. But they can score, too. They just blew away Saint Joseph’s in a Philadelphia Big 5 game, 108-61, their highest score in 12 years.
No. 6 Ron Hunter, Tulane
The Green Wave won four games last season. As in 4-27. So it’s not hard to imagine what a 7-2 start has done for Hunter’s acceptance. That includes Tulane’s first true road non-conference victory in three years, at Southern Mississippi, and the first win over a Pac-12 school since 1957, against Utah.  The Green Wave are riding a new wave, since only two scholarship players and 10.8 points a game returned from last season.
No. 5 Mike Anderson, St. John’s
The Red Storm are 9-2, with five wins in a row. Doesn’t much sound like a team picked to finish next to last in the Big East, does it? Mike Anderson is one of four coaches with at least 15 Division I seasons and never a losing record. The other three are Tom Izzo, Mark Few and Roy Williams, so he's in a a glitzy neighborhood.  His first St. John’s experience was supposed to be perilous with Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa back and not much else, but he has found other weapons, including a couple of New York kids in Rasheem Dunn and Julian Champagnie. St. John’s fans love winning with New Yorkers. Dunn, who dropped by Madison Square Garden to watch St. John’s games as a high schooler, hit the free throws that beat West Virginia on the same court. Champagnie’s father Ranford was a key player for St. John’s in 1996 — on the national champion soccer team. 
No. 4 Mark Pope, BYU
Pope made the six-mile move from Utah Valley to BYU this season, and sent his first batch of Cougars out to torment opponents with 3-pointers. They made 17 of them to beat Virginia Tech 90-77. They also handled UCLA by 15 and really put the squeeze on the Silver State — crushing Nevada and UNLV by 33 points each. The latest win in a 9-4 record was 68-64 over Utah State, which came in 10-1. Six different players have hit at least 15 3-pointers for BYU, which is helped by a veteran presence. The average age of the starting lineup is 22.
No. 3 Mike Young, Virginia Tech
His first game at Virginia Tech was on the road in the ACC. Not exactly wading into the pool. But the Hokies won at Clemson 67-60, and not long after that were upsetting No. 3 Michigan State as part of a 6-0 start. That was pretty impressive for a team picked to finish 14th in the conference. Virginia Tech stalled with a three-game losing streak, but the opponents were Dayton, BYU and Duke — current combined record of 26-6 — so that was forgivable. Young has the 8-3 Hokies firing away; they’re seventh in the nation in 3-pointers per game.
No. 2 Eric Musselman, Arkansas
Musselman hasn’t lost much, lately. He was 29-5 last season at Nevada, and now his Razorbacks are 9-1, only an overtime loss at Western Kentucky away from being unbeaten. One reason is Mason Jones, who banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Georgia Tech and just put 41 points on Tulsa. Another factor is Arkansas’ 3-point defense. The Hogs have allowed the third lowest percentage in the country and had one stretch when opponents clanged 2-for-49 in 3-point attempts, missing 32 in a row.  Then there is Musselman’s knack for reducing turnovers. In his first three seasons at Nevada, his team went from 208th in the nation in turnovers to third. Arkansas started the season with 21 turnovers in its opener and was 280th in the nation. After 10 games, the Razorbacks were down to 134th.
No. 1 Juwan Howard, Michigan
When the Wolverines knocked off Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga to make the unprecedented leap from unranked to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll in one week — and Michael Jordan thought he had a high vertical jump — the Howard Era seemed to have come of age barely three weeks into its first season. It would not always be that glorious, of course. The Wolverines are now 8-3 with three losses in four games, but this has been a true trial by fire. In 17 days, Michigan played four teams ranked in the top-10 and two Big Ten opponents. A 3-3 record through all that was not bad, and Howard has the Wolverines playing hard. They had four offensive rebounds in the last 55 seconds of overtime against Oregon, but couldn’t get the big shot to drop and lost 71-70.
“We all care,” he said. “We care about one another, we care about the results. When you lose two in a row it’s going to sting because we’re human.”
The early road has had moments that stung for some of the other men — winners at previous schools — who are trying to establish their programs in fresh places. Mick Cronin’s first UCLA team losing at home to Hofstra, for example. Buzz Williams dropping five of six games at Texas A&M, including to Harvard and Fairfield. Nate Oats losing his first game at Alabama to Pennsylvania, and giving up 104 points to Iowa State. Steve Alford’s first ride at Nevada including a 20-point loss to Davidson, and 33-pointer to BYU. T.J. Otzelberger’s first UNLV team already losing three games in overtime. Fred Hoiberg’s first act at Nebraska including defeats by Southern Utah, UC Riverside and George Mason, and a 37-7 deficit against in-state cousin Creighton, that ended with a 95-76 loss. (His Cornhuskers are clearly showing signs of development, however, after taking Indiana to overtime in Bloomington and whacking Purdue).
John Brannen is 6-4 at Cincinnati, the latest mishap a truly bizarre loss to Colgate when Bearcats guard Jarron Cumberland — apparently losing track of the game — launched a half-court shot with five seconds still left and the score tied 66-66. Bad turned to worse when Colgate’s Tucker Richardson was fouled going for the rebound, and made a free throw to beat Cincinnati 67-66. “He didn’t know what the score was,” Brannen said of Cumberland. “I know I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”
A result like that doesn't get a coach many voting points for the Having Fun Yet? Top 10.

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