Sometimes, it’s nice to be proven wrong.
No one wants to watch a coach lose a job, but it’s a fact of life in college basketball that programs are paying for performance. Fail to perform a few years in a row and someone will pay the price, usually the head coach.
And most of the of the time, the trajectory of a program and a coach’s job is clear. Too many NITs, too many missed postseasons and the writing is on the wall for the coach’s last shot to save himself and his career.
That’s why it’s so remarkable to watch a coach turn a program, to watch a fired coach walking walk right into a contract extension. The pressure must be enormous and the buy-in may be tenuous.
But it happens again and again. Check any hot seat list from any given year and there’s likely a coach there who kept his job. For example, who at the start of last season though Rick Barnes was on his last legs at Texas?
A loss to Oklahoma on Monday notwithstanding, Barnes is doing just fine at Texas in 2014-15.
Who could be this year’s version of Rick Barnes? Here are a few candidates who might make the turn from coach in trouble to coach of the year this season.
Mark Turgeon, Maryland
All signs pointed to a mess of a season for Mark Turgeon, who entered the Big Ten losing five members of last year’s rotation to transfers. Instead, the Terrapins are at or near the top of the heap at No. 2 behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Maryland started 14-1 with wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Michigan State and Minnesota. The only loss is to Virginia. The Terps' offense has caught up to the defense with the highest offensive efficiency (31st) on KenPom in Turgeon’s four seasons at Maryland. Moreover, he’s done this with only eight games from Dez Wells. Four-star freshman guard Melo Trimble is averaging 16.2 points per game, and guard/forward Jake Layman has emerged as a 55 percent shooter, up from 40 percent last season.
Travis Ford, Oklahoma State
Ford was pointed to a no-win scenario in 2014-15. The Cowboys were already coming off a season that came unraveled despite the presence of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown. Oklahoma State is 11-2, one game off from last year’s mark of 12-1 at this point. Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte are still here, and Anthony Hickey’s career has been revived after his transfer from LSU. Some of those wins don’t look as good as they normally would (Memphis, Missouri, Kansas State), and there are plenty of questions on how the Pokes will perform in a deep Big 12 again. Still, Ford appeared to be headed to another long season. The Cowboys at least will be competitive.
Steve Lavin, St. John’s
Lavin has had trouble matching the NCAA appearance in 2011. Granted, not all of that record the last three seasons is due to his coaching. In the two years since he returned from a bout with prostate cancer, St. John’s is 18-18 in the Big East with two NIT appearances. Could the Johnnies be pulling out of that slump? They started 11-1 with a wins over Syracuse and Minnesota and the lone loss coming to Gonzaga. St. John’s is 0-2 in the Big East and may start with a third consecutive loss to Villanova on Tuesday. It’s worth noting, however, that a four-point loss to Butler came without second-leading scorer Rysheed Jordan.
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall
A former Rick Pitino aide, Willard looked like he had Seton Hall on the road to relevance with an NIT appearance in his second season in 2012. That came crashing down with 3-15 Big East mark in 2013 and a 6-12 mark last year. Willard’s fifth season with the Pirates may shape up to be his best and not entirely due to the arrival of highly touted freshman Isaiah Whitehead, though he's a big part of it. Seton Hall is 12-2 with a pair of wins over St. John’s and Villanova to start Big East play. Both have come without Whitehead, who missed the last three games with a stress fracture in his right foot. The Pirates have cracked the top 20 in the AP poll for the first time since 2001, Tommy Amaker’s final season.
Lorenzo Romar, Washington
Romar is a survivor, that’s for sure. He’s been at Washington for more than a decade and he’s rebuilt the the Huskies twice during his tenure. He may be on his away to another renaissance in Seattle after three consecutive years without an NCAA Tournament appearance. The Huskies started 11-0 with wins over San Diego State and Oklahoma. Nigel Williams-Goss remains one of the nation’s most underrated point guards, and Fresno State center Robert Upshaw solidified the interior defense with 4.6 blocks per game. The last three games spoiled an otherwise stellar start with an 0-2 start to Pac-12 play and a loss to Stony Brook. Still, no one expected much out of this Huskies team.
Trent Johnson, TCU
Johnson might not have been on the hot seat entering the season, given the uphill climb TCU has in the Big 12. Going 2-34 in the conference in the first two seasons, though, isn’t a great omen for job security. TCU started the season on a 13-game winning streak. The Horned Frogs did zero heavy lifting during that win streak. Six games were against sub-300 opponents compared to one against a top-100 opponent (Ole Miss). Still, TCU ranked 234th on KenPom last season and won only nine games. The Frogs will take it.
Still in limbo...
Tom Crean, Indiana
The scene in Indiana has calmed from a few months ago when a series of off-court incidents left Crean with a depleted roster. An NCAA Tournament bid isn’t completely out of the question as the Hoosiers have wins over SMU, Pittsburgh, Butler (on a neutral floor) and Nebraska (on the road) on the resume. Indiana is going to score a bunch, take a ton of 3s and not play a much defense. That’s a recipe to at least keep things interesting down the stretch.
Mike Anderson, Arkansas
Arkansas’ fate in the SEC will be intriguing as always. The Razorbacks are 11-2 but their best win is over SMU and the losses came to Iowa State in a blowout and Clemson. If the Razorbacks can’t win enough against teams not named Kentucky in the SEC to make the NCAA Tournament, Anderson will be in some trouble.
Anthony Grant, Alabama
The Crimson Tide might be feeling a bit better had Alabama found a way to hold a lead against Wichita State on Dec. 16. Instead, the Tide lost 53-52 and enter SEC play without a top 50 win. Unfortunately for Grant, once considered one of the up-and-comers in the sport, this situation is all too common.