Thursday, February 08, 2007

Michigan's Next Basketball Coach

Regardless of whether Tommy Amaker is going to remain Michigan’s basketball coach after this season, the fact remains that the vast majority of Michigan basketball fans are disgruntled with the state of the program. Keep in mind that this is the same fanbase that was more than willing to give Amaker ample time to make his mark. I can’t think of a coach that was given more time and excuses than what Amaker has received. I don’t think the rumblings from the fanbase are unreasonable in the slightest. The program is no better off in year six than it was in year one other than being five years farther away from the probation era.

Amaker’s tenure has been marked by a lack of preparedness and a noticeable lack of progression by his players. It is amazing how many times I have spoken to Michigan basketball fans who agree that Dion Harris, Lester Abram, and Courtney Sims were actually better during their freshman year than they are as seniors. I suppose an argument could be made that they were just overrated to begin with but that really makes no difference. Even overrated players improve over four seasons. Harris, Abram, and Sims are hardly the only players that have not progressed under Amaker. In fact, I can’t name a single player that noticeably improved from their freshman year. If that isn’t an indictment on Amaker, then I don’t know what is.

If Michigan is going to get back to its winning ways on the court, it will have to do what so many struggling basketball programs have done—bring in a proven winner. A proven winner is not necessarily the same as a big-name coach. They can be the same—but they don’t have to be. Michigan probably won’t have the luxury of bringing in a big name and that might not be such a bad thing. It’s not hard to find a coach that has won consistently at multiple institutions. Some of the best coaches in America are coaches that nobody had even heard of five years ago.

Quick turnarounds are not as hard as Amaker has made them out to be. It certainly shouldn’t take six years. It took all of six months before Bob Huggins transformed Kansas St. from an awful program into a serious candidate for the NCAA Tournament. Huggins might not be your “cup of tea” since he has had issues in the past but there are plenty of coaches like Huggins. Michigan took a chance in hiring Amaker because he hadn’t really accomplished anything tangible in his coaching career. He “supposedly” had the pedigree but whether he could lead a college basketball program to great things was not known. Amaker has been a coach for ten seasons. Look at any other coaching resume of ten seasons and you’ll know immediately if you’re dealing with a good coach or an average coach. It doesn’t take good coaches ten seasons to find their niche.

I cited a few statistics last week in a post that I wrote regarding Amaker’s tenure. Most of those statistics featured won/loss records on the road and records against other Big Ten teams. What I didn’t get into was margin of defeat. While Michigan is 5-36 on the road against teams that aren’t Penn St. and Northwestern, the average margin of defeat in those 36 losses is 16 points. Since Amaker took over in 2002, Michigan’s average margin of defeat on the road is actually worse than Northwestern’s. Since Northwestern doesn’t have the luxury of playing itself twice per season, its road schedule has actually been more difficult than Michigan’s. It’s one thing for a team to lose too often but it’s a completely different thing to lose too often by a gazillion points. My point here is that Michigan isn’t even close to breaking through. It’s not like Amaker has been stung by fluke losses. For six seasons he has had decent players but nothing has changed since year one. His teams either beat very bad teams or lose by a lot to good teams. Almost any coach could accomplish the same thing.

Michigan needs to hire a coach that can stamp an identity onto the program. That coach needs to be a coach that has actually led a program beyond expectations in the past. That coach needs to be a coach that has helped decent players become great players. The next coach can’t be a coach with “potential”. There are far too many coaches available that have proven the ability to do all of the things that Amaker was supposed to be able to do. I understand Bill Martin wants to reward Amaker for keeping the program out of trouble and for taking a huge mess without complaining. Unfortunately for Martin and Amaker, the fanbase has much higher expectations than a nice basketball coach leading an underachieving program.

Here is a list of candidates that Michigan should seriously consider if it decides to move beyond the Amaker era. I only included coaches that might actually want to coach at Michigan. I can’t see Jamie Dixon leaving Pittsburgh or Jay Wright leaving Villanova. Those are basketball schools that are legitimate championship contenders. I’m not saying that Michigan is a better job than every school on this list. I just think that these coaches would at least listen to Michigan if it called. There really is no harm in “shooting for the stars” but I chose not to waste everyone’s time with that. I also did not include coaches that just started at a new school like Anthony Grant (VCU), Bobby Gonzalez (Seton Hall), and Greg McDermott (Iowa St.) among others. Those coaches could be ready to move on to bigger and better places (whether Michigan is bigger and better remains to be seen) in a few years.

Michigan Basketball Coaching Candidates

1). Tom Crean Marquette Head Coach

Whether you like Tom Izzo or not, there is no question that he is one of the top coaches in college basketball. Crean is probably the closest thing there is to Izzo. In fact, Crean's time at Marquette is remarkably similar to Izzo's time at MSU. Both hovered around .500 in their first two seasons before seeing their programs blow up. Crean coached under Izzo at MSU. He has put Marquette back on the map. He was an excellent recruiter at MSU and continues to be an excellent recruiter at Marquette. Crean has won at least 19 games in each of the last six seasons including a trip to the Final Four in 2003. Marquette handled its move to the Big East brilliantly which is saying a lot considering how much better the Big East is than Marquette's former conference--Conference USA.

Crean also has a Michigan connection as he is Jim Harbaugh's brother-in-law. Getting Crean to leave Marquette may be a tough sell but it is certainly worth a shot. I don't think there is any question that Crean would return Michigan to its glory days.

2). Billy Gillispie Texas A&M Head Coach

I don't think there is a more impressive coach in college basketball right now than Billy Gillispie. Texas A&M hadn't had a good college basketball program in my lifetime until Gillispie came aboard. He is on his way to a third 20-win season in three years at A&M. The year before Gillispie arrived, A&M was 7-21. In Gillispie's first year, he went 21-10. He followed that with a 22-9 record and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. In his third season, he has A&M firmly in the top ten and in line for a two or three seed in the tournament.

Gillispie is no one-trick pony either. He took over the UTEP program in 2002. In his first season, UTEP went 6-24. In his second season, he took UTEP to the NCAA Tournament with a 24-8 record. This is the kind of coach that Michigan fans have been clamoring for. He preaches defense without yielding disorganization on offense. He clearly makes the most out of his talent as the cupboards were certainly not full when he arrived at UTEP and Texas A&M. The trick here would be getting Gillispie to leave Texas A&M.

3). Lon Kruger UNLV Head Coach

Lon Kruger is one of the top ten coaches in college basketball hands down. He coached Kansas St. for four years from 1986-1990. He took his team to the NCAA Tournament all four seasons. Then, he moved on to Florida which had gone 7-21 the previous season. After six seasons and a trip to the Final Four with Dan Cross, Andrew DeClerq, and D’meat Hook (Dametri Hill), Kruger left Florida as a national powerhouse to coach Illinois. In four seasons at Illinois, he led his teams to the second round of the NCAA Tournament three times.

After an unsuccessful stint in the NBA, Kruger returned to coaching at UNLV. The Runnin’ Rebels are once again among the nation top programs thanks to Kruger. Kruger won 15 games in his first season and improved to 17 wins in his second season. Now in his third season, Kruger has UNLV 10th in the RPI with wins over Nevada, BYU, and Texas Tech. Kruger has never failed to deliver a winning program at four different Universities. He might be the surest thing to guaranteed success that Michigan will find.

4). Mike Montgomery Former Stanford Head Coach

Getting Mike Montgomery to come to Ann Arbor would be a godsend. He is the architect of the 90's Stanford program that went to the NCAA Tournament ten straight seasons. Montgomery recruited with the best by stockpiling NBA talent. Montgomery is the kind of coach that builds a program for the long term. He makes the most out of his talent. He has had plenty of success grooming big-men and guards alike. He has won numerous national coach of the year awards and reached the Final Four in 1998. He probably won't stay out of coaching long so Michigan would have to let him know if they are interested.

5). Todd Lickliter Butler Head Coach

Lickliter has turned Butler into a national power which is certainly no easy task. This season alone, Butler has defeated Notre Dame, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Purdue, and Indiana. None of those five wins were at home. Butler doesn't have nearly the national recruiting reputation as any of those schools so it's clear that Lickliter makes the most of his talent.

In his first season at Butler, Lickliter went 24-5. This year, Lickliter has Butler on track for a 30-win season. This is a guy that can build a basketball program and keep it running even with second-tier talent. He has also proven that his teams can win away from home.

6). John Beilein West Virginia Head Coach

John Beilein has revolutionized the West Virginia basketball program. Before Beilein took over, I can't ever remember WVU having a competitive basketball team. Beilein is one of the best "pure" coaches in college basketball. Whereas some coaches are better recruiters, Beilein's assets are clearly found on the basketball court. He will be able to win with whatever talent he is given. The year before Beilein took over the WVU program, the Mountaineers went 1-15 in the Big East. That win total has increased every year under Beilein culminating in an 11-5 record in ’06.

Under Beilein, West Virginia has had no problem winning on the road. He is 5-2 in the NCAA Tournament with one loss coming by three points and the other coming in overtime. Over the last two and a half seasons, West Virginia is 12-14 on the road in conference play. Those 12 wins on the road in two and a half seasons are just two less road wins than Amaker has had in six seasons—and Beilein inherited a program that was 1-15 in conference the year before. In 2006 alone, West Virginia defeated three teams in the RPI 14 on the road.

7). Jeff Bzdelik Air Force Head Coach

Bzdelik went 24-6 in his first season at Air Force. That is nothing to be ashamed of but Air Force's rather weak schedule definitely had a lot to do with that success. Two years earlier, Air Force went 22-6 under similar circumstances. To be fair, Bzdelik led Air Force to the NCAA Tournament last season despite having one of the worst resumes of any tournament team ever.

So you're probably wondering why I've got Bzdelik so high on my list. Well, this season has been a completely different story. Air Force has seven wins against the RPI 100 (it had four last year) and that number could grow as high as ten before the season is over. Air Force has beaten Stanford and Texas Tech away from home and UNLV at home. For those of you that know the talent discrepancies that the Academies have to deal with, there is no question that Bzdelik's coaching has been fantastic. I'm guessing that if Air Force puts up another season like this one in '08, Bzdelik won't be the coach at Air Force much longer.

8). Rick Majerus Former Utah Head Coach

I suppose I would rather have Mike Montgomery over Rick Majerus but it isn’t by much. Majerus’ health would be a concern considering he has had weight and heart problems. On a strictly coaching basis, I’m not sure Montgomery even has an edge. Majerus made Utah a national power with a bunch of recruits that nobody wanted. He made numerous NCAA Tournament appearances and molded players that weren’t highly sought after out of high school into first round draft picks. He even led Utah to the National Championship game in 1998.

It would be ideal to bring in a coach that could stay for a while. By bringing in someone like Majerus or Montgomery, you’re probably dealing with a coach that may stay long enough to build a program that can run on auto-pilot like the Michigan of old—or may stay for just a few seasons. That is the price Michigan would have to pay to bring in a coach like that. That certainly would be an upgrade over what’s happening now. It’s just hard to build a recruiting presence and consistency within the program when you know there might be another coaching change in the near future.

9). Trent Johnson Stanford Head Coach

Nevada is where it is today because of Trent Johnson. He took over a Nevada program that had gone 7-18 the year before. Johnson was at Nevada for five seasons where he saw his win total climb every year. His tenure reached a crescendo in year five when his Wolfpack went 25-9 and reached the Sweet Sixteen. He didn’t stick around to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He took over at Stanford after Mike Montgomery left for the NBA. Johnson has kept Stanford in post-season play and is working on another NCAA Tournament appearance. The Stanford program is on the verge of blowing up once again as Johnson has an impressive group of underclassmen.

10). Dana Altman Creighton Head Coach

Altman was hired at Creighton in 1994 where he posted a 7-22 record in his first season. Altman proceeded to turn Creighton into an annual NCAA Tournament team. He has led the Blue Jays to the NCAA Tournament in six of the last eight seasons and he is well on his way to doing the same this season. Creighton has won 20+ games every year since 1999. He has also led Creighton to the Missouri Valley Tournament Championship five times since 1999. I don’t think there is a coach on this list that has done more for a basketball program than Altman. He has built a mid-major into somewhat of a national power. There is no question in my mind that he could restore Michigan’s place on the court as well.

11). Blaine Taylor Old Dominion Head Coach

Taylor is one of the more underrated coaches in college basketball. You don’t hear his name much but he has transformed Old Dominion into an annual mid-major power. Taylor took over Old Dominion after the program had just finished a 12-17 campaign the year before. Four seasons later, Old Dominion went 28-6 on its way to the NCAA Tournament. Taylor is on his way to his third straight 20-win season.

Taylor also took the Montana basketball program to new heights before signing on at ODU. In seven seasons at Montana, he went 142-65 with five 20-win seasons and two NCAA Tournament appearances. Taylor coached under Mike Montgomery at both Montana and Stanford.

12). Chris Lowery Southern Illinois Head Coach

Chris Lowery is a disciple of Bruce Weber. Lowery coached under Weber at both S. Illinois and Illinois. Lowery is only 34 but already seems to have the fine art of recruiting down. He has been lauded for his ability to sell his basketball program. In his first season at S. Illinois, Lowery won the Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year Award at the age of 32. He is 68-24 at S. Illinois and will likely have the Salukis in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season.

13). Mike Brey Notre Dame Head Coach

Brey has done for Notre Dame what Beilein has done for West Virginia. Brey did have the foundation that Matt Doherty left but considering Notre Dame hadn't reached the NCAA Tournament in more than ten years, Brey had some work to do. Notre Dame's success wasn't as immediate or as substantial as West Virginia's but Notre Dame can be expected to suit up a pretty competitive team year in and year out. Most importantly, Brey has made Notre Dame an annual threat in the loaded Big East.

Brey had previously coached at Delaware where he compiled a record of 99-52 and two trips to the NCAA Tournament. Brey, like Amaker, was an assistant for Coach K. Although, Brey's success at Delaware and Notre Dame have been exceedingly more impressive than what Amaker has done at Michigan and Seton Hall.

14). Barry Hinson Missouri State Head Coach

Barry Hinson has put Missouri State on the map. The Bears won at Wisconsin in the one of the most impressive victories in college basketball in ’07. Missouri St. was robbed by the Selection Committee last season becoming the highest rated team to ever be left out of the NCAA Tournament. Hinson coached under Bill Self at Oral Roberts before taking over as the head coach at Missouri St.. While Self has become one of the elite coaches in college basketball, Hinson’s stock has been rising as well.

15). Dave Rose BYU Head Coach

The year before Rose took over as head coach at BYU, the Cougars were 9-21. That makes Rose’s first year tally of 20-9 all the more impressive. To prove that wasn’t a fluke, Rose has BYU in even better shape in 2007. The Cougars are in first place in the Mountain West Conference which features Air Force and UNLV. BYU owns victories over both of those schools in ’07. BYU has an RPI of 24 and looks to be headed to the NCAA Tournament at the very least as an at-large selection.

16). Seth Greenberg Virginia Tech Head Coach

The theme of this list involves schools that used to be terrible but aren’t anymore because they hired the right guy. Virginia Tech fits right in. Ask any knowledgeable college basketball fan to name one player that has played basketball for Virginia Tech and you’ll either get “I don’t know any” or “Ace Custis” as your answer. In fact, I have seen a handful of Virginia Tech games this year and I swear that the announcers mentioned “Ace Custis” in every game. It has been a long time since Virginia Tech wasn’t terrible at basketball. Unfortunately for Ace, Greenberg’s success at Virginia Tech likely marks the end of Ace’s stranglehold on all things Virginia Tech basketball.

Greenberg put together strong programs at Long Beach St. and S. Florida before taking on the task of rebuilding Virginia Tech. He has been successful at every location. He currently has Virginia Tech ahead of Duke in the ACC standings. He also has Virginia Tech in line for an at-large selection out of the ACC which was unheard of before this season.

17). Oliver Purnell Clemson Head Coach

Purnell is a veteran coach who is no stranger to turning around basketball programs. He took over a Radford program that had gone 7-22 the previous season. Purnell’s influence sparked a 15-game improvement in just one season. He then took over a dreadful Dayton program that had won just 17 games in the previous four seasons combined. Purnell guided Dayton to two NCAA Tournament appearances and a bevy of wins over NCAA powerhouses. Purnell had Dayton ranked in the top 25 in each of his last two seasons before leaving for Clemson.

Purnell’s most recent accomplishments have been his most impressive. When Purnell took over Clemson in 2003, the Tigers were the worst program in the ACC. Just four years later, Purnell has Clemson in line for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1997.

18). Scott Sutton Oral Roberts Head Coach

Perhaps no coach on this list has been directly influenced by a more impressive collection of mentors. Sutton is, of course, the son of legendary coach Eddie Sutton. His brother, Sean, is now the head coach at Oklahoma St. Sutton started his coaching career as an assistant at Oral Roberts under Bill Self and later under Barry Hinson.

Sutton has the Oral Roberts steamrolling towards a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and a third straight 20-win season. ORU pulled off a monumental upset winning at Kansas earlier in the year.

19). Mark Turgeon Wichita State Head Coach

Turgeon’s win totals at Wichita St. have climbed every year since 2001. That culminated in one of the best seasons in school history in 2006 which featured a 26-9 record and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. The Wichita St. basketball program was struggling mightily when Turgeon arrived in 2000. Now it is one of the premier programs in the MVC. The MVC is raided for coaches by the power conferences seemingly ever year. Turgeon will be the answer for a struggling program very soon.

20). Jim Les Bradley Head Coach

In 2003, Les took over a struggling Bradley program that had lost 20 games the previous season. In just four seasons, Les took Bradley from a 20-loss program to an NCAA Tournament at-large selection. In 2006, Bradley had ten victories over the RPI 100 including two shocking upsets in the NCAA Tournament over Kansas and Pittsburgh. Bradley is now one of the premier teams in the up and coming Missouri Valley Conference. Bradley is once again in the RPI 50 in ’07. I’m guessing that one more season like the 2006 campaign will be Les’ last year at Bradley.

21). Mark Fox Nevada Head Coach

In two and a half seasons at Nevada, Mark Fox is 72-15. He has won the WAC Coach of the Year award in each of his first two seasons. By the end of this season, Fox will have 25+ wins in each of his three seasons at Nevada. Fox was an assistant at Nevada under Trent Johnson who has since gone on to Stanford where he has continued that program’s winning ways.

22). Gregg Marshall Winthrop Head Coach

Gregg Marshall has been a sought after coach for a few years now. NC State was interested in Marshall to replace Herb Sendek. There is no questioning Marshall’s accomplishments at Winthrop. His teams have dominated the Big South conference winnings the Big South regular season five times and the Big South Tournament six times in just eight seasons. Winthrop is arguably having its best season yet in 2007 as it narrowly lost to Wisconsin in overtime and came within seven points of beating North Carolina. Winthrop still hasn’t produced the marquee wins that have solidified the programs in the MVC but Marshall seems to have his program on the right track.

The problem with bringing in a coach from a school like Winthrop is not knowing how a coach’s success in a very poor conference translates to a power conference. The vast majority of Winthrop’s games are against some of the worst teams in college basketball. The only way to know is to look at Winthrop’s results against good competition. The number of games that Winthrop has played against good competition is extremely small. If I had to make a guess, I would say Marshall could probably win anywhere. Remember, before Marshall came aboard, Winthrop was just another bad basketball program.

23). Tom Pecora Hofstra Head Coach

Pecora has turned Hofstra into one of the elite mid-major basketball programs. Over the last two and a half seasons, Hofstra is 64-23. Last season, Hofstra was easily one of the top 40 teams in college basketball despite getting hosed by the NCAA Selection Committee. Hofstra defeated George Mason twice in two weeks to end the regular season at 24-6 and 30th in the RPI. George Mason was an at-large selection in the NCAA Tournament where it made a remarkable run to the Final Four.

Pecora coached under Jay Wright for seven seasons at Hofstra before Wright left for Villanova. Wright has made Villanova a household name garnering a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season.

24). Stew Morrill Utah St. Head Coach

Morrill has single-handedly made Utah St. a mid-major behemoth. Heading into the 2007 season, Morrill had a 190-63 record at Utah St. in eight seasons. Under Morrill, Utah St. has been to five NCAA Tournaments and is en route to its 8th straight 20-win season. Over the last seven seasons, Utah St. has a 77.8 winning percentage which is the fourth best rate in the nation over that time. Morrill also had winning programs at Colorado St. and Montana. He coached under Mike Montgomery and Jud Heathcote.

25). Darrin Horn Western Kentucky Head Coach

Michigan fans might remember Horn when he led Western Kentucky over the Wolverines in the first round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. Horn is the youngest coach on this list (32) but he is hardly short on accomplishments. He coached under Tom Crean at Marquette where he acted as the recruiting coordinator. He was largely responsible for luring Dwyane Wade to Marquette. He was also a member of Marquette’s Final Four coaching staff in 2003.

Horn has increased his win total at Western Kentucky in each of his first three seasons and could very well do the same again this season. His career record at WKU stands at 77-38. He will be one of the top coaching candidates in America very shortly.

26). Larry Reynolds Long Beach State Head Coach

In Larry Reynolds’ first season at Long Beach St., his team was the worst team in the Big West. Five seasons later, Long Beach St. is, far and away, the best team in the conference. Reynolds has his team on the cusp of the RPI 100 (101) and in line for a 20-win season and an NCAA Tournament bid. Reynolds has had tremendous success at the D-II level before coming to LBSU. Here is an article discussing LBSU’s rise under Reynolds.

Quick Fix for the Short Term

There are a number of veteran coaches that could help Michigan in the short term. George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, Davidson’s Bob McKillop, Holy Cross’ Ralph Willard, Cal. St. Fullerton’s Bob Burton and, former Washington State coach, Dick Bennett come to mind. Hiring a younger coach would be the ideal situation.

The Tubby Smith Option

Tubby Smith Kentucky Head Coach

I don’t think Tubby Smith would ever leave Kentucky for Michigan but I do think his time at Kentucky might be limited. Kentucky fans aren’t happy with the success (or lack thereof) Smith has had in Lexington. Smith is a superb recruiter and a more than adequate basketball coach. I don’t think he is the end all but I would not be upset if he somehow ended up in Ann Arbor.


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Jake said...

Thanks for the comments. I'll check the message board out. I don't have enough free time to write much but I like to read them. Take care.


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