April 11, 2012 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
It happens in every sport and at every level. In the days following a season, pink slips are shown to coaches that haven't lived up to their potential (and haven't built up their teams to said potential). College basketball is no different. Before the NCAA tournament began, schools from the SEC, Big Ten, Conference USA, Atlantic 10, and Missouri Valley — among others — had vacancies on the sidelines.
Most of these positions have been filled, either by coaches stepping up in name recognition (John Groce to Illinois, Tim Miles to Nebraska, Dan Hurley to Rhode Island) or well-traveled assistants getting their first shot (Danny Manning to Tulsa, Jerod Haase to UAB, Rick Ray to Mississippi State). But there are some moves each year — no matter the year — that make you scratch your head. Now, originally, I'm from "Big 12 country." I still follow the conference to this day, and the two positions that became available in-league are the ones that have puzzled me the most.
TCU isn't officially a member of the conference, but that will change well before November. The school isn't really known for its hoops prowess. Only seven different Horned Frog teams have made the tournament, the last time being in 1998. And while they didn't break that streak in 2012, the squad completed their final season in the Mountain West on the rise. In the last three weeks of the regular season, the Frogs beat future NCAA teams Colorado State, New Mexico, and UNLV (and took San Diego State to overtime).
All of this growing success was due to coach Jim Christian. After accumulating nearly 200 wins in 10 years of coaching (at TCU and Kent State), you would have liked to have seen what he could do against Big 12 competition. Instead, Christian (the guy, not the school) decided to head back to his MAC roots and take the opening at Ohio.
People that are smarter than me are saying that Christian felt more comfortable in this world (a la Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, and Mark Few). The difference is that other coaches choosing to stay on this level did so at the school where they got their start. You usually don't see people step up in conference hierarchy, improve the program, then step back in that hierarchy without getting canned (especially when on the verge of stepping up to the highest tier of "conference respect"). I wonder if Christian would have made the same decision if the school kept its original plan of heading to the Big East next year.
As much of Christian's move confused me, I was even more perplexed a few days earlier when I heard that Kansas State's Frank Martin was heading to South Carolina. Maybe he wanted to get out of the shadow of Bob Huggins. Maybe he wanted to take his trademark glare to the Eastern Seaboard. Maybe he wanted to continue beating down Missouri (and adding to my "fandom" angst). But for whatever reason, Martin left a program he had taken to four NCAA tourneys (in five seasons), 6 tourney wins, and an Elite Eight appearance. Where he landed … a program that has eight overall tournament appearances, no tourney bids since 2004, no tourney wins since 1973, and an average of 11 wins over the last three seasons.
It'll be interesting to find out if Martin can build this team from scratch. However, I still wonder why he made this move. On the court, the Big 12 is led by Kansas. It's always has, and it more than likely will stay that way. The battle for "Who got next?" is up in the air.
Texas has been good, but not dominant. Baylor is trying to wedge their way into that status. Texas A&M and Missouri are gone. Everyone else has been inconsistent. The situation was perfect for Martin to solidify the Wildcats as the second banana of the conference. Compared to most other leagues, being in the top two here ain't bad.
There are numerous reasons why we take one opportunity over another. I can't peek into Christian's or Martin's heads to figure out their thought processes. But it'll be intriguing to follow them to find out if their decisions are ultimately the most fruitful ones.