December 29, 2008

The Cradle of Coaches (Part 1)

With tonight's start of conference action in the Big East (heretofore referred to as the BEast), I figured a breakdown of the teams was due. But not a traditional "starters/bench/schedule" breakdown. It matters more who's on the sideline with the clipboard rather than who's on the court. The coach prowling the sidelines barking at his players (and the refs) is the most important ingredient to a successful program. It's no surprise that the BEast has been lauded as the deepest conference the last few years. Scanning the names of the 16 gentlemen wearing coats and ties (with one mock exception) reads like a who's who among college basketball coaching icons. The teams at the top have superior coaching leading their talented players. The current downtrodden teams, some of which are once proud basketball programs, are relegated to the basement until better leadership grabs the reins. Here's one man's take on the best coaches in the BEast. Note, this is not how I think the teams will end up, just an order of their ability to coach in the best conference in basketball, from 16 to 1.

16. Norm Roberts, St. John's
Vitals: 20-47 (Big East, 4 years); 72-151 (Overall, 8 years); 0-0 NCAA Tournament
From 1995-2004, Roberts toured with Bill Self as his equipment engineer, with gig stops at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas. Some people just aren't cracked out to grab the mic and take the stage by themselves - ever hear about the musical exploits of Tony Banks from Genesis? Didn't think so. Roberts' most successful season as a solo artist is a measly 16-15 for Queens College, where he also played college ball with Anthony Mason, Sr. Not sure on what grounds Roberts earned a 5-year extension this past May. I'm also not sure why I ran with that extended musical metaphor, but one things for certain - Louie Carnesecca's once proud program is miles away from returning to glory. Roberts isn't the answer.

15. Fred Hill, Rutgers
Vitals: 6-28 (Big East, 2 years); 21-39 (Overall, 2 years); 0-0 NCAAs
Another assistant coach lifer (24 years with stints at Seton Hall and Villanova) who finally got his break in 2006. Not much life has been breathed into the somnambulant Scarlet Knights program, though Hill scored a prized recruit with freshman Mike Rosario, impressing the Rutgers brass to extend his contract to the 2012-2013 season. Though Rosario looks to be a star player as promised, good coaches don't lose non-conference games to St. Bonaventure, Lehigh and Binghampton. There's usually a reason a guy doesn't ascend to a head coaching job after 20 years - he's not cut out for it. I fear the writing is on the wall for Rutgers and they just flushed money down the drain.

14. Jerry Wainwright, DePaul
Vitals: 20-31 (Big East, 3 years); 229-202 (Overall, 14 years); 1-3 NCAAs
Another once proud program that has hibernated for the better part of 20 years. DePaul should be plucking from the abundance that Chicago has to offer and fielding very competitive teams, but it's just not happening under Wainwright's watch. There's only two kids from the city on the current roster and a third from the suburbs. Sure he led UNC-Wilmington and Richmond to the Big Dance, but since coming to Chitown, he's missed the BET twice in three years. Looking at the man, does he really look like a guy 20-year-olds will respond to? Hell no. If he coached in the 80s, his team might have been intimidated by him since he's a dead ringer for the principal from The Breakfast Club. But now his droopy face does little to inspire the troops. Get some new blood in their DePaul. What a joke.

13. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Vitals: 10-25 (Big East, 2 years); 93-61 (Overall, 5 years); 0-2 NCAAs
Doug can shed more light on the state of Cincy hoops, but the program is still trying to find an identity since Huggy Bear forced himself out of town. Cronin, a Cincinnati native and alum, brings a fiery passion to the sideline that has provided a little spark in his teams. Cronin proved to be a great recruiter in his time as assistant coach for the Bearcats from 1997-2001, reeling in future stars such as Steve Logan, Jason Maxiell, Kenny Satterfield and DerMarr Johnson. He went to assist at Louisville under Pitino before making the jump to head coach at Murray State. He's perfectly content to remain in the city if he can groom his young team into a contender. Cronin made two trips to the NCAA tournament with the Racers, so he's enjoyed a little success that proves he might be up to the task. On a side note, it looks like Cronin might not be the best baller in his own family.

12. Bobby Gonzalez, Seton Hall

Vitals: 11-24 (Big East, 2 years); 159-108 (Overall, 9 years); 1-2 NCAAs
Something's brewing in South Orange, New Jersey. The longtime assistant of Pete Gillen, with stops at Virginia, Providence and Xavier, Gonzalez grabbed the reins at Manhattan and steered the Jaspers to two NCAA bids, including a huge upset of Florida in 2004. Making the jump to Broadway, his tenure began tenuously with an underwhelming 4-12 BEast record, but he nearly doubled the win total last year. Gonzalez has solid recruiting connections in the East and looks to be rebuilding the proud program that PJ Carlesimo guided to the championship game. With a legit scoring threat in Jeremy Hazell, the Pirates are poised to move into the upper half of the league's standings this year. We may see Gonzalez break out as a coach to be reckoned with.

11. Buzz Williams, Marquette
Vitals: 0-0 (Big East); 14-17 (Overall, 1 year); 0-0 NCAAs
Very little career resume to work with on "Lightyear" Williams. But I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt on being an up-and-coming coach. Tom Crean brought Buzz into the fold a year ago after Williams' only year of head job experience at New Orleans. With Crean's abrupt departure, the keys to the Corvette are all his. Not bad for a guy who's only 36. A reputed recruiting ace, Buzz spent two years under Billy Gillespie's tutelage at Texas A&M. With a veteran team at his disposal, we'll find out soon enough if he can sink or swim in the BEast.

10. Stan Heath, South Florida

Vitals: 3-15 (Big East, 1 year); 124-96 (Overall, 6 years); 3-3 NCAAs
Heath brings a strong background to Tampa/St. Petersburg. He's enjoyed success at Arkansas and Kent State (Elite Eight appearance in 2002) after learning the trade from Tom Izzo at Michigan State for 6 years. So the quality of the coaching isn't as much a question, but rather if he can summon the same magic tricks at South Florida. Though there is plenty of talent to choose from in the state, there is zero support for a program that has never had any measurable success. WeIsND made an official trip to the Sun Dome and were amused and bewildered at the lack of enthusiasm shown a Big Easy conference program. I think I counted 14 students making up the "rabid" student section. There were three banners hanging from the rafters, extolling the program's "success" - 1991 NIT; 1995 NIT Elite Eight; 2000 NIT. The fact that it was a record crowd for the ND game underscored the problem that Heath may not want to stick around to fix. If he can inject a little life into the program, there's a significant opportunity to build a legit program. Time will tell if that happens under Heath's watch.
9. Keno Davis, Providence
Vitals: 0-0 (Big East); 28-5 (Overall, 1 year); 0-1 NCAAs
Another overachieving 36-year-old, Davis was named 2008 National Coach of the Year after his remarkable season with Drake. Davis' coaching pedigree is stellar, studying under his father, Dr. Tom Davis (of Iowa fame) for five years at Drake before taking over. When Providence cut ties with Tim Welsh, Davis was the hot name to bring in. We'll see if he can keep the momentum going, though I'm a little weary to bet anything on a guy who shares a name with a kind of poker. I believe Keno will be a good fit in Rhode Island (however long he is there) and restores some of the luster of the program that another man on this list brought to great heights.

8. Jay Wright, Villanova
Vitals: 71-57 (Big East, 7 years); 270-167 (Overall, 14 years); 7-6 NCAAs
Everyone knows Jay Wright as a consistent performer in the GQ Fashionable Four. Sure, it makes him an easy target for sleazebag comparisons, but with Wright's suave attire comes a penchant for success. Learning at the knee of Rollie Massimino at Villanova and then UNLV, Wright witnessed a true legend wield his craft. On his own, Wright proved himself a winner at Hofstra, with Speedy Claxton helping to break in his dance shows on two occasions. Returning to Villanova in 2001, he's led the Wildcats to four consecutive trips to the Dance, including one Big East regular season title. His efforts bring a steady stream of talent off the competitive courts of Philly. Nova also annually pits itself against the Big Five, testing themselves in their own city before proving their mettle in the BEast. Wright is a formidable counterpart on any given night.

Part 2 to come once I return from a needed trip to the sunny beaches of Whale's Vagi...I mean, San Diego.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Great discussion topic. Looking forward to seeing the top 7.

Out of these bottom 9 coaches, I think the most intriguing of the bunch might be Bobby Gonzalez. He has the pedigree as an assistant and in his small college days at Manhattan, and Seton Hall has really shown some life in the last couple years. I thought Seton Hall was on the verge of going extinct as a Big East program, but they might actually have a future with Bobby G.

Can't say I know anything about Buzz Williams, and we probably won't know what he's all about for a couple years. He has a veteran team this year that is pretty much on autopilot, so I'm more interested to see what he does in recruiting this offseason and how he does with a young team in a year or two. Marquette is a good program that has had success finding unknown coaches, so I do trust their track record to some degree. Should be interesting.

I agree completely about Jerry Wainwright. He is a complete dud if you ask me. They always come to play against ND, but his teams play lazy and undisciplined basketball. And as you pointed out, you gotta be able to recruit the local Chicago players to win at DePaul. There is so much talent in his backyard. DePaul should move on and get a young, dynamic coach who can recruit. Whatever happened to Tom Kleinschmidt?? Is he coaching anywhere?? Maybe they could bring him in.

I like Jay Wright, but I agree exactly with where you have him. Jay Wright is a solid coach who can recruit, but he's been at Nova for 7 years now and only has had two teams that you could consider to be top 5 teams in the league. They were great for a two year run with Foye and Ray and Lowry, but they've gone back to being a 9-9 type team in the Big East. Not bad or anything, and they made a run to the Sweet 16 last year. I just think he's about where he should be.

As for Mick Cronin, his team is better this year, but UC is really not all that good and not all that close to being an upper-echelon Big East team. That's the goal for UC hoops, but he hasn't really advanced them near that goal. Mick is a good guy who is recruiting pretty well, but I think UC fans are a little bit nervous about where he is taking this program. It seems like they will take a step forward and then take two steps back. UC fans know what a well-coached team looks like. They had it under Bob Huggins. This new version of UC basketball doesn't really match up.

UC fans were so spoiled under Bob Huggins that it's hard to accept a new identity as a mediocre program. That's basically what UC is right now, and I don't know if Mick is the guy to make them good again. He deserves more time to see if he is the guy, but the rebuilding process has been quite slow so far.

Looking forward to the top 7. I think there are some really tough choices among this top tier group. Do you define the rankings based on a career achievement (Boeheim, Calhoun, etc) or do you do it based on which coach is the best right now (i.e. John Thompson)?? Or do you look at guys who are doing more with less (Mike Brey)? The Big East has so many great coaches with great resumes that it's really hard to say definitively who the "best" coach in the league is. There are different criteria that could match any of the guys left on your list.