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Grading 13 Key College Basketball Coaching Hires for 2015-16

Shaka Smart

Shaka Smart

The college basketball coaching carousel has slowed down with all but a handful of mid-major and low-major jobs filled.

Unless a college coach makes a leap to the NBA in the coming weeks and months, every major job is filled. All in all, this was a quiet year in the carousel, though three head coaches with Final Four experience took new jobs.

Only five jobs in the Power 5 conferences — Alabama, Arizona State, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas — opened this season. That, of course, doesn’t include notable openings at VCU, St. John’s and DePaul.

How did the most important hires grade out in 2015-16? Here’s a look at 13 of the key hires in college basketball this offseason.


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Shaka Smart, Texas

Hired from: VCU

Replaced: Rick Barnes, hired at Tennessee

Texas needed to make a bold move to replace Barnes, a coach who ultimately fell victim to the expectations he raised in Austin. Smart certainly qualifies a bold hire. Smart resisted overtures from major programs since leading VCU to the Final Four in 2011, and now he'll be expected to challenge Kansas in the Big 12. The 38-year-old Smart brings energy, buzz, a defined style and a track record of success. VCU reached the NCAA Tournament in five of six years under Smart and three times finished second in conference play (once in the Colonial and twice in the more competitive Atlantic 10).

Grade: A

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Ben Howland, Mississippi State

Hired from: N/A

Replaced: Rick Ray, hired at Southeast Missouri State

Howland’s track record is impeccable, including three consecutive Final Fours and four Pac-10/12 regular season titles at UCLA. Howland’s program tailed off after 2008 thanks to a few recruiting classes that didn’t pan out, but he still won a regular season title in his final year. Perhaps just as relevant to Mississippi State fans is Howland’s track record at Pitt, a moribund program that reached back-to-back Sweet 16s under his watch. Howland might not have produced enough for UCLA, but this is a home run hire for Mississippi State.

Grade: A

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Avery Johnson, Alabama

Hired from: N/A

Replaced: Anthony Grant, hired as Florida assistant

A handful of former NBA coaches have tried their hand at college coaching in recent years. Few bring as successful a pro track record as Johnson, who went 194-70 in four seasons with the Dallas Mavericks. Johnson has been an NBA coach of the year and reached the NBA Finals. Alabama ultimately failed in wooing Gregg Marshall from Wichita State, but the Crimson Tide still landed a coach who can hold his own against other recent SEC hires Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland.

Grade: B

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Rick Barnes, Tennessee

Hired from: Texas

Replaced: Donnie Tyndall, fired

Barnes was out of work for all of two days before Tennessee hired the former Texas coach. His tenure, though, can be a bit divisive. He has missed the NCAA Tournament only once since 1996 and has 604 career wins. Yet he also left TExas fans wanting more. Since the 2003 Final Four, Barnes had three preseason top 10 teams fail to reach the Sweet 16 and at least seven Big 12 losses in each of the last four seasons. At Tennessee, he’ll recruit and he’ll lend a stabilizing hand to a program in desperate need of one.

Grade: B

Bill Carmody, Holy Cross

Hired from: N/A

Replaced: Milan Brown, fired

Carmody ultimately couldn’t get Northwestern over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament. He did make Northwestern more competitive with four consecutive NIT bids, which was an accomplishment itself. before Northwestern, Carmody was wildly successful at Princeton, going 27-2 and earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 1997-98. There’s little reason to believe he won’t be successful in the Patriot League.

Grade: B

Steve Donahue, Penn

Hired from: N/A

Replaced: Jerome Allen, fired

Donahue lasted only four seasons at Boston College, but he’s returning to the stage were he had success. Donahue rebuilt a dormant Cornell program into a three-time Ivy League champion and a team that reached the Sweet 16 in 2010. Penn, an NCAA regular under Fran Dunphy from 1993-2006, believes it is getting a sure thing.

Grade: B

Will Wade, VCU

Hired from: Chattanooga

Replaced: Shaka Smart, hired at Texas

This was a natural move for VCU as Wade was an assistant for four seasons under Smart before taking the head coaching position for two seasons at Chattanooga. The Mocs improved from 8-10 in Southern Conference the year before he arrived to 12-4 in his first year to 15-3 in his second. He arrives in a pressure-packed situation in following the most successful coach in a run of three consecutive successful coaches. The 32-year-old Wade is the only one of the last four Rams coaches — Anthony Grant and Jeff Capel were the other two — to arrive at VCU with head coaching experience. 

Grade: B-minus

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Eric Musselman, Nevada

Hired from: LSU (associate head coach)

Replaced: David Carter, fired 

Nevada hopes the well-traveled Musselman will give a jolt to program that slipped from one of the best mid-majors to 9-22 last season. Musselman, a former NBA, Continental Basketball Association and international head coach, has been working to rebuild his career after a DUI arrest during the preseason of his final year with the Sacramento Kings. When he was the coach of the Golden State Warriors for two seasons in 2002-04, he was considered an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks. He’s spent the last three seasons as an assistant at Arizona State and LSU.

Grade: B-minus

Chris Mullin, St. John’s

Hired from: Sacramento Kings front office

Replaced: Steve Lavin, fired

Mullin’s place in St. John’s history is secure. He’s one of the best players in school history, the program’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time Big East Player of the Year. He’s a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer and Olympic gold medalist. Now, St. John’s hopes he’s the guy who can return the program to glory. He’s never been a coach, spending his post-playing career in NBA front offices. Does the Mullin name connect with recruits? Perhaps not, but few will be better able to articulate the potential of the program like Mullin. Hiring assistants from Kentucky (Barry Rohrssen) and Iowa State (Matt Abdelmassih) is a good sign for recruiting.


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Bobby Hurley, Arizona State

Hired from: Buffalo

Replaced: Herb Sendek, fired

One could argue the most impressive Hurley brother in the mid-major ranks between Dan at Wagner and Rhode Island and Bobby at Buffalo. Bobby, though, has the NCAA Tournament appearance with Buffalo last season. He’s also spent his entire coaching career in the Northeast, so his assistant hires at Arizona State will be key. 

Grade: C

Brian Wardle, Bradley

Hired from: Green Bay

Replaced: Geno Ford, fired

Wardle was never able to get Green Bay to the NCAA Tournament, but his tenure was nonetheless impressive. The Phoenix were one of the nation’s top mid-majors the recent years, winning 24 games in each of the last two seasons for their best two-year total total since Dick Bennett was the coach in the early 90s. The 35-year-old Wardle played and coached under Tom Crean at Marquette and went to high school in the Chicago area. That should serve him well in Peoria. One concern: Wardle was accused in 2013 of player mistreatment but ultimately retained his post at Green Bay.

Grade: C

Dave Paulsen, George Mason

Hired from: Bucknell

Replaced: Paul Hewitt, fired

After a short-lived tenure by a former high-major coach, George Mason returned to the approach it had when it hired Jim Larranaga in 1997 by hiring a consistent coach coach from the lower levels. Paulsen coached seven seasons at Bucknell, winning a Patriot League title in four of the last five seasons. Paulsen also won a Division III national title at Williams College in 2003.

Grade: C

Dave Leitao, DePaul

Hired from: Missouri (assistant coach)

Replaced: Oliver Purnell, fired

DePaul can at least it hired a coach it knows can win at DePaul. That description doesn’t apply to many active coaches. Leitao is the last coach to take DePaul to the NCAA Tournament — back in 2004. Leitao went 63-60 in his last head coaching gig at Virginia from 2005-09. For a program in desperate need of energy, this hire did not check that box.

Grade: D