Young coaches are catching up to old guard
Even for a league with campus institutions like Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, this offseason was relatively quiet for the Big East coaching ranks.
For only the second time since 1995-96, the Big East did not have any coaching changes. That leaves more than a third of the league with coaches who with at least 300 games with their current employer -- Boeheim, Calhoun, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Villanova’s Jay Wright.
All of those coaches have have been marked, more or less, by consistency through the years. For the bottom portion of the league, the programs are at least finding some consistency on the bench. At DePaul, Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John’s, a wave of hires from 2010 are entering their third seasons this year.
We’ll try to bring all 15 of the Big East’s coaches into perspective here.
Note: Coaches are ranked on a mix of past accomplishments with consideration for career trajectory over the next five seasons or so. Rankings take Xs and Os acumen and recruiting prowess into account along with success in the regular season and postseason.
1. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
Overall record: 890-304 (48-28 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Syracuse: 890-304 (355-185 Big East)
At the start of the 2011-12 season, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski were the only coaches with 900 Division I wins. Boeheim should join them early in 2012-13. Like Krzyzewski, Boeheim is winning at as good a rate as he did earlier in his career. Syracuse’s 34 wins last season was a record for Boeheim, topping 31 wins in 1986-87. The Orange’s 17-1 mark in the Big East was also his career best. Meanwhile, Syracuse has reached the Sweet 16 or better in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments. Still, Boeheim is seven seasons removed from his last Big East Tournament title and a decade removed since his last Final Four (and national championship). Even with Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, Fab Melo and Scoop Jardine gone, Boeheim has plenty of talent on the roster in his final season the Big East, the only conference in which he’s coached.
2. Rick Pitino, Louisville
Overall record: 627-230 (42-16 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Louisville: 275-106 (81-41 Big East)
Similar to the other active Hall of Fame coaches, Pitino keeps winning and keeps adding to his list of accomplishments. He and rival John Calipari remain the only coaches to take three teams to the Final Four. Last season, he joined Roy Williams as the only coaches to take two teams to multiple Final Fours. He’s accomplished this at Louisville without a consensus All-American in his tenure (he had three at Kentucky). Of course, there’s plenty of talent at Louisville. The 2012-13 season won’t be an exception as the Cardinals are likely to start the season in the top five.
3. Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh
Overall record: 238-77 (11-8 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Pittsburgh: 238-77 (103-51 Big East)
Dixon’s teams often have been lauded as overachievers, but he finally had a season where nothing seemed to go right in 2012-13. The Panthers went 5-13 in the Big East as Dixon missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his nine-year head coaching career. Still, one bad season in nine (or 11, going back to the end of the Ben Howland tenure) is something Pitt will take after long stretches of irrelevance.
4. Buzz Williams, Marquette
Overall record: 110-62 (5-4 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Marquette: 96-45 (46-26 Big East)
How could Williams be ranked ahead of more accomplished coaches Jim Calhoun, Jay Wright, John Thompson III and Steve Lavin? We expect the 39-year-old Williams to be headed for a standout career. There’s good reason Oklahoma and Arkansas pursued him for recent vacancies. Williams is a little quirky -- his skill for producing numbers, statistics and minute details on demand is well-established. Also consider this: Marquette is the only Big East team to reach the NCAA Tournament every year since the league reorganized in 2005-06 -- Williams is responsible for four of those trips, predecessor Tom Crean for three. Williams has done this without some of the inherent advantages of other Big East programs.
5. Mike Brey, Notre Dame
Overall record: 359-184 (6-10 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Notre Dame: 260-132 (124-75 Big East)
Another overachiever in a powerhouse basketball league, Brey has won three of the last six Big East Coach of the Year awards (2007, 2008 and 2011). He had a compelling case to pick up a fourth last season when the Irish, picked ninth in the league, finished 13-5 and in third place without top player Tim Abromaitis. Brey has led Notre Dame to the NCAA Tournament in five of the last six seasons and to 20 wins every year since 2006-07.
6. Jim Calhoun, Connecticut
Overall record: 873-380 (51-20 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Connecticut: 625-243 (276-163 BIg East)
Calhoun’s achievements are enviable -- the three national titles, four Final Fours, the sixth-most all-time wins, six Big East tournament titles -- but questions are creeping into his program. Due to Academic Progress Rate sanctions, UConn is the only major program ineligible for the NCAA Tournament in 2012-13. The Huskies also are three seasons removed from their last winning record in the Big East, albeit UConn won the national championship and Big East tournament in 2010-11. Last season, Calhoun missed 11 games due to NCAA and health issues. Questions about his retirement, perhaps as early as this season, abound, though he says he will be back for 2012-13.
7. John Thompson III, Georgetown
Overall record: 252-124 (8-8 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Georgetown: 184-82 (85-53 Big East)
Georgetown is back to being a regular NCAA Tournament team but not back to the where John Thompson the elder had the Hoyas in the 1980s. Under JT3, Georgetown is a difficult matchup when the Hoyas are executing the Princeton-style offense effectively. The Hoyas have tantalized in recent season, by reaching the AP top 10 in each of the last six seasons, but they have only two NCAA Tournament wins since the 2007 Final Four.
8. Jay Wright, Villanova
Overall record: 359-215 (12-9 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Villanova: 237-130 (99-69 BIg East)
Wright has restored Villanova to the season-by-season consistency from the Rollie Massimino years and continued the Wildcats’ tradition of standout point guards. His seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 2005-11, including the 2009 Final Four, matched the longest streak in program history. However, the Wildcats collapsed at the end of the 2010 and 2011 seasons before bottoming out at 13-19 overall and 5-13 in the Big East, Wright’s worst campaign in 11 years at Villanova.
9. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Overall record: 182-112 (3-4 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Cincinnati: 113-88 (43-54 Big East)
Hired after a successful three-season run at Murray State, Cronin walked into a bear of a rebuilding project at Cincinnati. Bob Huggins left under pressure two years prior to Cronin’s arrival, Cincinnati was dealing with academic issues and an exodus of players. On top of that, Cincinnati moved into the Big East. It was no quick fix. After four consecutive losing seasons in the Big East, including 2-14 in his first season, the no-nonsense Cronin led Cincinnati to a 52-20 overall record and 23-13 in the Big East the last two seasons, both of which ended in the NCAA Tourney. Cincinnati still has hurdles to overcome, but the Bearcats are on the right track.
10. Steve Lavin, St. John’s
Overall record: 168-92 (11-7 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at St. John’s: 23-14 (12-6 Big East)
Optimism is running high at St. John’s with Lavin’s return to coaching. He made the most of a senior-heavy team in 2010-11 by dominating at home and reaching the Tournament for the first time in nine years. The biggest challenges for the former UCLA coach began in his second season with the Red Storm, but they turned out to be more than Lavin could have imagined. Lavin missed the start of the season after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He recovered, but returned too soon, missing more nearly the entire season. Lavin’s team was young, the product of a highly regarded signing class replacing all those seniors. With Lavin healthy and a year of experience for its roster, St. John’s hopes to pick up where it left off.
11. Kevin Willard, Seton Hall
Overall record: 79-80 (no NCAA Tournament appearances)
Record at Seton Hall: 34-31 (15-21 Big East)
Willard may be the coach to turn Seton Hall around after the Pirates’ decade and a half in the doldrums. He arguably had a bigger rebuilding job before landing with the Pirates. Iona won two games the season before Willard left Rick Pitino’s side to take the job in 2007-08. The Gaels won 50 total games the two seasons after Willard left for Seton Hall, including last season’s MAAC regular season title and an NCAA at-large bid. From Willard’s first to his second season at Seton Hall, the Pirates improved from 13-17 to 21-13 (they improved by only one game in the Big East standings, however). The next two seasons will be key: Willard’s re-tooled roster has only one senior, a transfer from Iona.
12. Mike Rice, Rutgers
Overall record: 102-66 (0-2 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at Rutgers: 29-35 (11-25 Big East)
Rutgers hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and hasn’t had a winning season since 2006. With one of the youngest rosters in college basketball, Rutgers extended that streak in the last two seasons, but Rice’s Scarlet Knights were still able to score top-10 wins over Florida and Connecticut last season. Rice won three Northeast Conference regular-season titles, won two conference tournament titles and nearly knocked off second-seeded Villanova in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. The youth movement and Rice’s track record suggests he could turn Rutgers around, but other Rutgers coaches have had the same track record before arriving in Piscataway.
13. Ed Cooley, Providence
Overall record: 107-86 (no NCAA Tournament appearances)
Record at Providence: 15-17 (4-14 Big East)
Cooley can recruit. There’s no doubt about that. He was the top recruiter at Boston College for a decade before things went sour for Al Skinner. After that he turned Fairfield into a 20-win team. Now at Providence, he will add McDonald’s All-American point guard Kris Dunn and fellow five-star guard Ricardo Ledo in 2012-13. Providence isn’t an easy job, but the Rhode Islander Cooley appears committed to returning pride to his home state. His energy will be a major plus for this rebuilding job.
14. Stan Heath, USF
Overall record: 185-168 (5-4 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at USF: 73-91 (29-57 Big East)
An unlikely 12-6 season in the Big East, a trip to the NCAA Tournament and wins over Cal in the First Four and fifth-seeded Temple in the round of 64 may have saved Heath’s job. In three of Heath’s five seasons at USF, the Bulls won 12 or fewer games and four or fewer Big East games. Of course, USF is ill-equipped to compete in the Big East, but Heath’s results were still meager. He’ll be under pressure to keep the momentum going.
15. Oliver Purnell, DePaul
Overall record: 413-322 (0-6 in the NCAA Tournament)
Record at DePaul: 19-43 (4-32 Big East)
Purnell’s sudden departure to DePaul was a surprise after he had settled into a groove after seven seasons at Clemson, including four consecutive 20-win seasons and three trips to the NCAA Tournament. DePaul remains the worst job in the Big East, so improvement is incremental. DePaul went 3-15 in the BIg East last season -- a dreadful record, but the Blue Demons won two total Big East games in the three seasons prior. DePaul has a bona fide Big East difference-maker in Cleveland Melvin, so now’s a good time to start turning the program around.