Tubby Smith, Steve Alford among those with stellar debuts
When UCLA and Stephen F. Austin met in the Sweet 16, the game represented two of the success stories for first-year coaches.
UCLA coach Steve Alford, whose hire received lukewarm reviews, advanced the Bruins to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. Meanwhile, Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood became one of the top first-year coaches in NCAA history by going 32-3.
Those two coaches were in the minority, though. Of the 42 new coaches on the job in Division I in 2013-14, only four reached the NCAA Tournament. The other two to join Alford and Underwood in the field lost in their first games in the Tournament — one of those losses was not a surprise (Jeff Jones at No. 15 seed American) while the other was one of the major upsets of the round of 64 (Craig Neal at New Mexico).
The NCAA Tournament didn’t tell the entire story for first-year coaches as two men making their debuts won the NIT (Richard Pitino at Minnesota) and the College Basketball Invitational (Jimmy Patsos at Siena).
These coaches shouldn’t graded completely after one season, but the new hires for 2013-14 were quite the mixed bag. Here’s how the most notable first-year coaches fared:
Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin enjoyed its best season as a Division I member in the first season for Underwood, a longtime Frank Martin assistant. Stephen F. Austin was one of the top defensive teams in the country on the way to an 18-0 record in the Southland and a win over fifth-seeded VCU in the NCAA Tournament. Underwood’s 32 wins in his first season is the third-most in Division I history and his 91.4 percent win rate ranks sixth. Underwood's next task is to maintain the foundation laid by Danny Kaspar, who left for Texas State before last season.
Steve Alford, UCLA
Alford didn’t put UCLA back where the Bruins probably should be — in national title contention — but he delivered on a number of fronts. UCLA reached the Sweet 16 and won the Pac-12 tournament, both for the first time since 2008. Meanwhile, Alford offered up a more exciting brand of basketball. UCLA ranked 13th in offensive efficiency on KenPom and topped 80 points per game for the first time since winning the national title in 1995. Now, he’ll have to add two big-time recruits, Isaac Hamilton and Kevon Looney, to a roster that will be hit by NBA Draft defections.
Tubby Smith, Texas Tech
Texas Tech went 6-12 in the Big 12, but Smith gave the Red Raiders some much-needed stability after the Billy Gillispie fiasco. The six wins in a tough Big 12 shouldn’t be shrugged off, either. That’s two more league wins than the last two seasons combined. Texas Tech defeated four NCAA Tournament teams (Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas) and put a scare into league champion Kansas.
Mike Brennan, American
Brennan engineered a 10-game turnaround from 10-20 to 20-13 in his first season. The Eagles reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 before a lopsided loss to Wisconsin. Well-schooled in the Princeton offense, Brennan played for Pete Carril and served as an assistant under John Thompson III at Princeton and Georgetown.
Jeff Jones, Old Dominion
Old Dominion had been one of the most consistent teams in the Colonial before falling apart at 5-25 in Blaine Taylor’s last season. Jeff Jones, the former coach at Virginia and American, stepped in to rebuild in Conference USA. The veteran coach led the Monarchs to a 9-7 debut in C-USA and an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational. The roster included no seniors among its regular rotation, so Old Dominion could be back in NCAA Tournament contention in 2014-15.
Jimmy Patsos, Siena
Siena can be one of the top mid-majors as Fran McCaffery and Paul Hewitt proved during their tenures. Patsos, one of the most colorful characters in coaching, has the Saints back on that trajectory. In his first season, Patsos turned Siena from 8-24 to 20-18 and CBI champions, ending a streak of three consecutive losing seasons in the MAAC.
Chris Collins, Northwestern
The record wasn’t drastically improved from the end of the Bill Carmody era, but Collins injected some energy into the Northwestern program. The Wildcats finished 6-12 in the Big Ten, but that tally included road wins over Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, plus a win over Iowa in the Big Ten tournament. Northwestern loses only one senior, but Drew Crawford a big departure.
Bobby Hurley, Buffalo
Buffalo won between 18 and 21 games from 2008-09 to 2011-12 before slipping to 14-20 last season. Hurley, the former Duke point guard, stepped in during his first season as a collegiate head coach and led Buffalo to a first-place finish in the MAC East. Buffalo finished at No. 100 on KenPom.com, the highest ranking for any MAC team.
Will Wade, Chattanooga
Wade, a former VCU assistant, installed at Chattanooga what he calls “Chaos,” a homage to VCU’s “Havoc.” The Mocs improved from 8-10 in the Southern to 12-4 in his first season. Wade’s team gave the home crowd reason for excitement: Scoring is up by more than six points per game and the Mocs went 11-2 at home.
Casey Alexander, Lipscomb
Alexander is on his second quick turnaround in the Atlantic Sun. In his first season at Lipscomb, the Bisons improved from 7-10 in the league to 10-8 as they won eight of their final 11 games. At Stetson, Alexander led the Hatters from a 9-20 (6-12 A-Sun) season in his first year to 15-16 (11-7 A-Sun) in his second. Alexander was a player and long-time assistant at crosstown rival Belmont, so he knows how to build a winner at this level.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota
Minnesota had the same Big Ten record (8-10) in Pitino’s first season as the Gophers had in Tubby Smith’s last. The Gophers also traded a round of 32 loss in the NCAA Tournament for an NIT championship. Is that progress? Maybe. The real answer may be next season when Pitino has a veteran-laden team in a Big Ten that may have only one Final Four contender (Wisconsin).
Craig Neal, New Mexico
The Lobos quietly had one of their best conference seasons in school history, setting a school record with 15 Mountain West wins and a conference tournament title. Perhaps the passing of the baton from Steve Alford to his longtime assistant Neal was a little too smooth, down to the early exit from the NCAA Tournament against No. 10 seed Stanford.
Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast
Nothing could have topped the 2013 run to the Sweet 16, but Florida Gulf Coast proved it could remain a factor despite losing its coach. The Eagles actually improved their Atlantic Sun record by one game (from 13-5 to 14-4) in Dooley’s first season and earned a bid in the NIT by winning the Atlantic Sun.
TOOK A STEP BACK
Brandon Miller, Butler
Personnel losses meant this was going to be a difficult season even if Brad Stevens were still the coach. Miller’s first team went 4-14 in the Big East and endured the first losing season at Butler since 2004-05. Miller will try to continue to rebuild around Kellen Dunham, but Butler’s foray in a major conference could continue to be rocky.
Andy Enfield, USC
The Trojans went 2-16 in the Pac-12 in Enfield’s first season, but at least USC was better than its 6-26 overall mark in 2011-12. USC will rely on newcomers Kaitin Reinhardt (transfer from UNLV) and Darion Clark (transfer from Charlotte) and two four-star freshmen to put a more competitive team.
Eddie Jordan, Rutgers
Jordan’s tenure started with the revelation that he never finished his undergraduate degree at Rutgers. It didn’t get much better from there. Rutgers finished at 5-13 in the American, the same conference record as Mike Rice’s final team in a more competitive Big East. Rutgers’ final game, a 92-31 loss to Louisville in the American tournament, was the worst offensive performance by any team during the season at 42 points per 100 possessions. Up next is the Big Ten.