The Winds of Change
March 10, 2014 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
How long does the "honeymoon" phase of a new coaching tenure take? I figure that the first year is well within that timeframe. Depending on the circumstances, a new coach will either have to implement a new style of play, infuse a new lot of talent, or overhaul an entire culture. But, sometimes, you get a situation that could give a new voice the "ready-made" opportunity to thrive.
Sixty-eight teams made the NCAA tournament in March of 2013. Of those participants, 62 kept their coaches around as they headed into November of 2013. In other words, six tournament teams from a year ago have a different leader now. But are these programs better off as we enter March of 2014?
Four of the teams in this unique situation had little choice. Their coaches either rode off into the sunset or were hired away.
The retirement of Bob Thomason left Pacific University with a big hole to fill in their athletic department. The man who led the Tigers' program to nine NCAA appearances moved aside after a quarter-century on the sidelines. But that wasn't the only change, as seven seniors dropped off of the roster in Ron Verlin's first season at the helm. It also didn't help that the program moved from the Big West to the West Coast Conference.
In Indianapolis, it appears that the recent consistency of movement has finally caught up with Butler . Two seasons after leaving the Horizon League for the Atlantic-10, and (now) one season after leaving the A-10 for the new Big East, the Bulldogs had a drop-off. Of course, who knows what would have happened had Brad Stevens stayed instead of getting his own shot at the NBA.
The Bulldogs lost Andrew Smith, Chase Stigall, and Rotnei Clarke to graduation. However, there were returnees (Khyle Marshall, Roosevelt Jones, Alex Barlow, Kellen Dunham) who played significant minutes on a team that was one basket from their third Sweet 16 in four years. Now, with the postseason a long, long shot, we'll find out how much former assistant Brandon Miller learned while under Stevens' tutelage.
When you hear a discussion about New Mexico's basketball program, the first thing that may come to mind is where the Lobos play (it did host the famed 1983 Final Four). However, the Lobos themselves sustained a winning consistency under former coach Steve Alford. During his six-year run in Albuquerque, Alford's teams went to three NCAA tourneys (earning two 3-seeds and a 5-seed). And even though the majority of the team's talent returned from last season's Mountain West champions, you had to wonder how long-time assistant Craig Neal would handle the promotion. So far, seeing as how the Lobos were in a dogfight to defend their conference title until late Saturday night, so good.
A year ago, we all started to learn the name of a team that took the "directional school" moniker to a whole new level. Little did we know that Florida Gulf Coast would raise not only their game, but their national profile in a previously unheard-of march to the Sweet 16. Coach Andy Enfield introduced us all to "Dunk City," engineered upsets of Georgetown and San Diego State, and made most of us wonder why we never thought of heading to Fort Myers for college. (Hey, I'm young-ish enough to go back to grad school.) Enfield parlayed that magical run into a job in Los Angeles, but he didn't leave the cupboard completely empty. New coach Joe Dooley has taken advantage of returning talents, including Brett Comer and Chase Fieler. The Eagles got themselves on the precipice of another tourney bid, but a loss to Mercer in the Atlantic Sun Championship denied us fans an encore on the biggest stage.
While the previous four programs had to make due with "out-of-their-hands" situations, two schools that ironically met in last year's tournament made a statement of their own.
UCLA has lofty standards, but that's what happens when you coach at the school with the most NCAA men's basketball titles. Ben Howland went to three straight Final Fours. However, it wasn't enough. The Bruins won last season's Pac-12 regular season title. But that wasn't enough. The team then bowed out in their first game of the 2013 tourney. That was enough. Falling short of the lofty expectations (along with a scandalous photo and a frivolous NCAA scandal) appeared to be enough to push Howland out the door.
Enter Alford, who worked his way back up to the highest levels of college basketball after some time in the mid-majors (he did spend some time leading Iowa in the Big Ten). He basically has the same roster as last season, save Shabazz Muhammed. But the results aren't that much better (23-8, to this point, and compared to 25-10 over all last season). This team has the opportunity to make some more postseason inroads. However, the jury is still out on the Bruins.
The team that beat UCLA in the 2013 tournament ... Minnesota. Tubby Smith did not have nearly the success here in Minneapolis that Howland did in Westwood. He took the Gophers to the NCAAs three times in his six years at the helm, and that victory over the Bruins was the program's first official one in the Dance since 1990. But that wasn't enough. A yearly letdown during the conference schedule, as well as a change in athletic director, spurred the change on the sidelines.
New coach Richard Pitino inherited a similar situation to the one at UCLA. Even with starters Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams losing eligibility, quite a bit of talent returned from the squad Smith left behind. Although the style of play has changed for the Gophers, the results are steady as both teams enter(ed) the Big Ten tournament (this year: 19-12, 8-10 conference; last year: 20-11, 8-10 conference). We'll find out next weekend if Pitino the younger will be afforded the same chance as Smith was to prove his NCAA mettle.
For me, it's just interesting to take stock in how success leads to change, which leads to hope for more sustained success. However, as with most things, time will provide the ultimate answer to whether these "honeymoon" periods will turn into "matches made in heaven" or "messy divorces."