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Ranking the 10 best coaching hires heading into this season

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It was a relatively quiet Coaching Carousel in 2017-18 considering everything that happened in the sport of college basketball in the past year, but there still were seven high-major jobs that changed hands as well as a number of spots in leagues like the Atlantic 10, the Mountain West and the bottom of the American.

Not every hire made this offseason made waves, and not every decision to fire a head coach resulted in a lawsuit, but there was plenty to make the 2018-19 season fascinating for a handful of programs.

Let’s take a look back on some of those big name coaching decisions. 

Who made the best hires?

Did anyone make a head-scratching decision?

Who is guaranteed success?

Who is locked into failure?

Here are the 10 best hires of the carousel.

1. CHRIS MACK, Louisville

Chris Mack may have not been here before, but it was something close. When he took over Xavier from Sean Miller in 2009, there were high expectations associated with succeeding a wildly successful coach. The situation is different for him now in Louisville – he’s following one of the most accomplished coaches in the history of the game at one of its most storied programs and amid NCAA (and FBI) scrutiny – but the idea is the same. Win now, and win big.

Mack seems equipped to do both. He kept things rolling at Xavier, making the Musketeers a powerhouse, first in the Atlantic 10 and then in the Big East. He’s already scoring wins on the recruiting trail, which is going to be more indicative of his long-term success with the Cardinals than anything. He’s a proven winner and seemingly the perfect man to take over a high profile job in a tough situation.

2. DAN HURLEY, UConn

There haven’t been many high-profile hires in recent years that seem to just make as much sense as this one. UConn has a sense of urgency to return to prominence following a seemingly instant slide into mediocrity under coach Kevin Ollie after capturing the 2014 national championship. Hurley has made his name – well he’s built on the name his father, legendary prep coach Bob, put on the map and his brother, Bobby, helped perpetuate – in the northeast and would seem perfect to recruit the prep school circuit that has so much talent in the area. Getting the Huskies back to where Jim Calhoun had them seems maybe an impossible task in today’s landscape, but Hurley has the resume and talent to get them out of this rut and back competing for league titles and national relevance.

3. PENNY HARDAWAY, Memphis

My favorite hire of the offseason. Tubby Smith is undoubtedly a fine basketball coach, but he’s not exactly injecting a ton of excitement into a program. That was clear toward the end of his tenure in Memphis, which was hemorrhaging cash amid falling attendance figures and an even sharper decline in hope. Enter the most decorated and beloved player in program history, with an All-Star NBA career and all the Memphis recruiting ties any booster could dream of. Penny Hardaway may have zero experience coaching beyond the high school level, but he clearly resonates with recruits and adding Sam Mitchell to his staff should help whatever Xs and Os and organizational issues he’ll need to sort through. Hardaway is unproven, but he’s exciting as hell. The moves he’s already made in assembling his staff and getting to work on the recruiting trail suggest there’s substance to the style, too.

Penny Hardaway (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

4. JEFF CAPEL, Pittsburgh

This is an interesting spot for Capel. He’s had success as a head man at VCU and Oklahoma, but also experienced how fleeting all that can be in his final two seasons with the Sooners. A seven year stint on the bench with Coach K, a host of five-star recruits to your credit and a national championship on your resume is enough to get another high-major chance, though. Despite its historical success, Pitt is a more difficult job now in the ACC than when it was in the Big East, but it’s still got cache. Capel already has the Panthers involved with some high-level recruits – but it’ll be if he can reel them in that will ultimately decide how his third go-round leading a program is judged.

5. TOM CREAN, Georgia

This wasn’t exactly an exciting hire for the Bulldogs after Crean’s tenure in Indiana sort of petered out, but that’s probably not giving Crean enough credit for all he accomplished in – and the players he brought to – Bloomington. No, he’s not the exciting up-and-comer who brought Dwyane Wade to Marquette anymore, but Crean still won a ton of games with the Hoosiers. He’s also widely regarded in the industry as a serious grinder who didn’t just cash TV checks in his time off the bench, but rather continued to learn and study. Maybe he won’t have runaway success in Athens, but I think something like what Rick Barnes has done at Tennessee is very much a possibility.

6. ASHLEY HOWARD, La Salle

La Salle was never able to capitalize on its Sweet 16 appearance of 2013, with three losing seasons and two others one game above .500 following John Giannini’s second weekend run. The Explorers had eight seasons of sub-.500 ball in Giannini’s 14 seasons at the helm, in fact. So it makes a lot of sense to look across town on Jay Wright’s staff for an answer. Howard has had assistant stints at La Salle, Drexel and Villanova, where he won a couple of national championships, so his Big 5 credentials are impeccable. It’s hard to imagine La Salle doing better than this hire.

7. JAMION CHRISTIAN, Siena

Somehow, Siena went from an ugly breakup with Jimmy Patsos to snagging a 36-year-old head coach who already been to two NCAA tournaments and recruited well enough to Mount St. Mary’s to be perpetually (or so it seemed) losing players to up-transfers. This is a hire that seems destined to succeed.

8. DANA FORD, Missouri State

With Creighton and Wichita State seeking out greener pastures, Missouri State is well positioned to compete year-in and year-out in the Missouri Valley Conference. Ford, 34, engineered a quick turnaround at Tennessee State before things started teetering in Years 3 and 4, but he’s well regarded and would seem set up to succeed in an area the Illinois State graduate and one-time Wichita State assistant knows well.

9. TRAVIS STEELE, Xavier

If history is any guide, Travis Steele is going to win a ton of games with Xavier. From Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack, the Musketeers promote from within and then go on to win. It’s simply what they do. Steele’s resume leaves little doubt that it’ll continue yet again in Cincinnati.

10. NIKO MEDVED, Colorado State

After a tumultuous run and messy end, the marriage between Larry Eustachy and Colorado State came to an end this season, leaving the door open for the Rams to pursue ties to the staff that helped them to back-to-back NCAA tournaments in 2012 and 2013. Medved coached for Tim Miles as he built Colorado State into a contender, and then stuck around with Eustachy for a year as Colorado State earned an eight seed and tournament win. Then it was Furman, where he improved their win total every year before leaving for a one-year stop at Drake. Medved knows what it takes to win in Fort Collins, and he’s familiar with rebuilding jobs.

2018 College Basketball Coaching Carousel: Ranking the 12 best hires from the spring of 2018

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As of today, the college basketball coaching carousel isn’t quite finished spinning — thanks at lot, Detroit and Chicago State — but for all intents and purposes, all the jobs that are nationally relevant are filled and have been filled for a couple of weeks, some for more than a month.

What that means is that it is time to look back on some of those big name coaching decisions. 

Who made the best hires?

Did anyone make a head-scratching decision?

Who is guaranteed success?

Who is locked into failure?

Here are the 12 best hires of the carousel.

THE NO-BRAINERS

1. CHRIS MACK, Louisville

For my money, Mack is one of the ten best coaches in college basketball. He’s young, he’s a high-level recruiter, he understands how to run a program in that part of the country, he’s dealt with a passionate fanbase at a basketball school. This was the hire, and Louisville got it done.

1a. DAN HURLEY, UConn

Another homerun hire, and this one coming at a discount of sorts. Hurley picked UConn over Pitt, who offered a more lucrative contract, and Rhode Island, who offered him an extension with a bigger dollar figure. Dan, the son of legendary high school coach Bob Hurley and the younger brother of Bobby Hurley, picked the Huskies in part because of the fact that they were another school in the Northeast and in part because of the pedigree that comes with the UConn brand.

Whether or not the Huskies can actually return to the glory of the Calhoun years is up for debate, but Hurley is the guy to do it. He’ll recruit better than Kevin Ollie did and he should be able to coach up the players he lands better than Ollie did the last four seasons. I don’t expect UConn to once again because a top 5-10 program in college basketball, but I do think that Hurley is the guy that can get them back to being a perennial top 25 team and an annual AAC contender.

(AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)

THESE ATHLETIC DIRECTORS EARNED THEIR SALARIES

3. PENNY HARDAWAY, Memphis

I do not know if Penny is going to be a good college coach. He was a good high school coach, a good AAU coach and a great college and NBA player, but that doesn’t always translate. What I do know is this: He is going to be able to recruit the city of Memphis, which is something that Tubby Smith, his predecessor, was not able to do, because he already is landing Memphis kids. Getting talent matters. I think Tubby Smith is a better basketball coach than Josh Pastner, but Pastner unquestionably had more success at Memphis than Smith did. Penny will get talent.

But more importantly, Penny has reinvigorated a fan base. Memphis fans want to root for talented, local players. They’re going to do that with Penny — who is a Memphis native and alum — recruiting the kids he coached at East HS and with Team Penny. Gary Parrish, a Memphis radio host, said on the CBT Podcast on Monday that Memphis has already brought in enough money through donations and ticket sales to pay Penny’s salary and Tubby’s buyout for a year. College sports in a business, and at Memphis, business is finally good again.

4. JEFF CAPEL, Pittsburgh

I think Capel is a good coach and a very good recruiter who doesn’t get enough credit for the job he did at VCU or at Oklahoma before everything blew up in his face post-Blake Griffin. He was overdue to get another shot at a high-major gig, and Pitt was able to land him.

But, if I’m being frank, his presence this high on this list has a lot more to do with the fact that I believe Pitt is a bad job in the midst of what is going to be a long and difficult rebuild. The Pitt basketball program has no pedigree outside of the years that Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon were on campus. They’ve been to seven Sweet 16s in program history, and five of them came in a seven-year period from 2002-09. That was when the Panthers, who have no recruiting base to speak of, were pulling kids out of New York City with the pitch of being able to play in the Big East.

Now?

They’re in the ACC. That sale isn’t going to work, which means that Capel has to find a way to convince players to join a program that went 0-18 in the ACC last season. I’m not sure Pitt is a top ten job in the ACC. And they landed Capel. Good for them.

5. ASHLEY HOWARD, La Salle

Ashley Howard is a Philly native and a former La Salle assistant that has spent all but one year of his post-high school life playing or coaching at one of Philly’s college basketball programs. He knows that city as well as anyone, and has spent the last five years as an assistant on the staff of the most successful program in college basketball during that time, Villanova. This was the guy that La Salle needed to get, and they got him despite the fact that the athletic department is not in great shape financially.

Jamion Christian (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

6. JAMION CHRISTIAN, Siena

Christian went to two NCAA tournaments in six seasons at Mount St. Mary’s, finding a way to stay relevant despite losing transfers to bigger programs. He just turned 36 years old and has a bright future in front of him in this business. He’s had other offers and turned down other jobs, and eventually a better program than Siena was going to smarten up and pull the trigger. What makes the hire even more impressive is that Siena made it happen in the wake of an ugly breakup with Jimmy Patsos. This is the kind of hire that is going to lead to Siena getting back to NCAA tournaments … and having to find another head coach in five or six years.

7. NIKO MEDVED, Colorado State

The Rams landed themselves one of the better young coaches in the country who is a former assistant with the program and they did it without having to break the bank. In four years, Medved built Furman from a program that was left for dead to a conference champ for the first time in 26 seasons. In one season at Drake, he turned the Bulldogs from a team that was expected to be a joke to one that went 10-8 in the league. He’ll have a similar rebuilding task on his hands in Fort Collins, but he should be up for it.

8. JOE DOOLEY, East Carolina

East Carolina is a terrible job. It’s that simple. Terrible. They’ve been to the NCAA tournament twice in program history, the last time coming in 1993. Dooley knows all about this. He was an assistant on staff when they made the 1993 NCAA tournament despite finishing below .500 and just 4-10 in the CAA. He was also the head coach at the program from 1995-99. The best he did was a 17-10 mark, finishing tied for third in the conference. Now, the Pirates are in the AAC, a league that isn’t great but is well above the level of the program. And they were able to land Dooley, a former Kansas assistant that had a ton of success as FGCU the last five years, despite the fact that he knew he was taking a terrible job. Good for them.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

FINE, IF UNINSPIRING

9. TRAVIS STEELE, Xavier

Let me be clear on this: I do not think Travis Steele was a bad hire. I think he’s going to win at Xavier. I think he’s going to keep that program in and around the top 25, if not competing for Big East titles. This was the right hire. But he was always going to be the guy. This is what Xavier does. They promoted Sean Miller after Thad Matta left for Ohio State. He turned into a top ten coach in the country. After Miller left for Arizona, they promoted Mack, and ditto. Steele might end up on that same path. I wouldn’t be shocked. I just think that it’s more impressive to make a good hire at a bad job than it is to make the smart decision to hire from within when it’s the obvious move and what your program does.

10. TOM CREAN, Georgia

It’s not that I don’t think that Crean, the former Marquette and Indiana head man, is a good coach — I do — it’s that this hire is kind of a weird fit. Crean has spent the majority of his coaching career in the midwest, even if he did end up recruiting nationally more than he did within state borders by the end of his time at Indiana. Recruiting Georgia, and specifically Atlanta, is complicated, but it can be quite fertile if done correctly. Figuring out how to navigate the state will be the key to whether or not Crean outperforms his predecessor, Mark Fox.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

11. KERMIT DAVIS, Ole Miss

Kermit Davis is a good coach that had a tremendous amount of success at Middle Tennessee State and is familiar with the recruiting waters he’ll have to wade in at Ole Miss. I’m just not sure that I see the logic in Ole Miss firing the most successful coach that the program has ever had only to go out and hire a guy that basically does the same thing, just at 58 years old instead of 50.

12. DAVID COX, Rhode Island

This was probably the right decision for URI to make, given that Cox should keep some of the talent on the roster from departing. But he’s also going to be a first-year head coach taking over for a guy that made a program without much history nationally relevant. Those are big shoes to fill. We’ll see how it plays out.

Colorado State finds difficulty scheduling good non-conference games

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Colorado State became a symbol for why having a decent non-conference schedule matters, as head coach Larry Eustachy’s team missed the NCAA tournament last season despite having an RPI of 29.

The Rams became the second top-30 RPI team ever to miss the field in-part because a weak non-conference schedule padded their 27-7 overall record with a 14-0 record in non-conference play. Sure, Colorado State earned wins over Colorado and UTEP, but that didn’t exactly have the committee fired up.

According to a report from Kelly Lyell of the Coloradoan, Eustachy is once again having a tough time scheduling games against elite competition. As Lyell’s story points out, the Rams are 45-9 at home in Eustachy’s three seasons at the school, so it would be tough to get power conference opponents to come through.

“Nobody wants to play us,” Eustachy said in Lyell’s story. “Our teams have always been tough to beat at home. Our fans would love to see UCLA come in here, for example, Duke come in here. If they can get them to do that, we’d sign the contract yesterday.

“… We do the best that we can under the circumstances.”

Since Colorado State can’t seem to draw big-name opponents, with the exception of Colorado coming in this season, they’ll travel to Northern Iowa to start the season and also play Kansas State in a neutral setting in Wichita. The difficulty of getting elite teams to play games at Colorado State has made Eustachy start to propose some unique ideas.

From Lyell’s story:

Schools in the five power conferences don’t want to come to Fort Collins, even in 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 deals, Eustachy said.

“There’s not a big pool if we want home games,” Eustachy said. “If you’re out there listening and you’re a Colorado State fan, get Kansas to come in here, and we’ll throw in a bonus for you. Get those schools to come here. We’ll play Kansas 3 for 1, we’ll go there 5 for 1.”

It’s unfortunate that Colorado State can’t get good home games, but maybe scheduling a second good neutral site game against a power conference team or looking ahead and getting good mid-major programs at home would help them play better competition in the early going.

If Colorado State has another strong start in non-conference this season, it’ll be something to track in terms of their ongoing RPI and how they might make the field of 68.

Charges dropped against Colorado State’s Gian Clavell, reinstated by Larry Eustachy

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Colorado State guard Gian Clavell, a rising senior, returned to team activities on after charges against him were dropped.

Matt L. Stephens of The Coloradoan reported on Monday evening that Clavell’s case was dismissed last Thursday. Back on July 17, Clavell was arrested after campus police witnessed an incident between Clavell and a female student. He was arrested “alleged harassment and false imprisonment, with a domestic violence enhancement.”

Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy suspended Clavell from the team following the arrested. Eustachy confirmed to Stephens that Clavell is back with the program.

Clavell is Colorado State’s top returning scorer at 9.2 points per game. The Rams graduated J.J. Avila, Stanton Kidd and Daniel Bejarano, all of whom averaged double figures from a season ago. The 6-foot-4 Clavell takes on a larger role for the Rams this season alongside fellow guards Joe De Ciman and John Gillon.

Colorado State, coming off a 27-win season and a trip to the NIT, open the 2015-16 campaign at Northern Iowa on Nov. 14.

Colorado State’s Antwan Scott granted sixth year of eligibility

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Colorado State received good news on Monday afternoon, as guard Antwan Scott was granted a sixth season of eligibility.

The 6-foot-1 guard averaged 1.3 points in 1.5 assists per game in 33 total minutes due to a foot injury. Following a win over Air Force Academy on Jan. 10, Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy officially ruled Scott out for the remainder of the season. He appeared in only four games.

Scott joined the Colorado State in August 2014, transferring in from Grambling State, where he averaged 15.7 points, 4.7 boards and 3.8 assists per game during the 2013-14 season. He was immediately eligible as a graduate transfer. Adding Scott back to the lineup is important for a Rams team that lost its top three scorers, J.J. Avila, Stanton Kidd and Daniel Bejarano.

Colorado State finished 27-7 (13-5 in the Mountain West), earning a bid to the postseason NIT.

Colorado State guard Gian Clavell suspended following arrest

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Friday afternoon it was reported that one of the guards expected to be a key contributor for Colorado State this upcoming season has landed in legal trouble.

Gian Clavell, who averaged 9.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game and is the team’s leading returning scorer, has been suspended from the team following his arrest Thursday. According to The Coloradoan, Clavell has been arrested “for alleged harassment and false imprisonment, with a domestic violence enhancement” with campus police officers witnessing the alleged incident with a female student Thursday morning.

Colorado State lost forwards J.J. Avila and Stanton Kidd and guard Daniel Bejarano from last season’s team, which missed out on the NCAA tournament despite winning 27 games. For that reason Clavell’s expected to be a key contributor for the Rams, but this legal situation throws a wrench into those plans for the time being.

Clavell is one of three returnees to average between 7.9 and 9.2 points per game last season, with Joe De Ciman and John Gillon being the others. That core will be joined by a group of newcomers led by junior college transfer Emmanuel Ombogo, who was rated as one of the top prospects in the 2015 class, as they look to get Colorado State to the NCAA tournament.