10 College Basketball Coaches with the Most Riding on This Season

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2012

10 College Basketball Coaches with the Most Riding on This Season

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    Most coaching storylines center around the guys who are set to lose their jobs—the "hot seat" crowd, if you prefer. This season, like every other, features a great assortment of those kinds of coaches.

    There are others, however, whose seasons will prove pivotal to their careers for reasons other than job security.

    A few have a golden opportunity to make a name on the national radar, an opportunity that isn't likely to return any time soon. Some have conference or regional challengers creeping up from behind. Several of these coaches will lead their programs for a long time to come, but will look back on this season as a watershed moment.

    And yes, some of these guys may be looking for a new program to lead by April.

    Here are 10 coaches (presented alphabetically) who should treat this season as the most important of their careers, for one reason or another.

Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest

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    Simply put, Jeff Bzdelik is living on borrowed time.

    His predecessor Dino Gaudio was shown the door despite a 44-18 record and two NCAA berths in his final two seasons. Bzdelik came into this season 21-42 in his two seasons, including a grand total of five ACC victories. The last time the Demon Deacons were that futile in the ACC was between 1986 and 1988.

    After several players left the program for various reasons, Bzdelik is left with the ACC's top two returning scorers and a top-25 recruiting class. C.J. Harris and Travis McKie have to help those freshmen hit the ground running.

    The ACC is as competitive as ever, meaning that some coaches can survive on moral victories. Only if athletic director Ron Wellman, the guy who hired Bzdelik, is willing to give him credit for close losses will Bzdelik get to have that fourth season.

    Otherwise, a middle-of-the-pack ACC finish may be the bare minimum that Bzdelik needs to keep the job.

Jim Christian, Ohio

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    Jim Christian bailed on TCU, perhaps knowing that the program was a bit outside its weight class as a newcomer to the Big 12. He landed back in the MAC, where he experienced his greatest successes at Kent State.

    Ohio made the Sweet 16 last season, largely due to the contributions of juniors D.J. Cooper, Walter Offutt, Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely. Those four are now seniors, and expectations in Athens are higher than they've ever been.

    Christian is in no jeopardy no matter what happens this season, but there's a strong chance to strike while the iron is hot. He put together a solid run at Kent State, but never quite equaled the momentum he inherited.

    Ohio has the chance to establish itself as the dominant program in the MAC, and another NCAA trip would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

    Especially if the Bobcats can pull off another upset or two once they get there.

Travis Ford, Oklahoma State

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    Last season was Travis Ford's first losing effort in his four as Oklahoma State's head coach. Unfortunately, last season was the year that he brought in top-10 recruit LeBryan Nash.

    Nash wasn't able to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him, and as a result, neither were the Cowboys. This season, Ford has added another top-10 freshman in point guard Marcus Smart.

    Missing the NCAA tournament for a third straight year, this time with two former blue-chip prospects on the roster, is a very difficult result to explain to one's superiors. When the people asking for answers include prominent boosters like billionaire T. Boone Pickens, the costs of a coaching change aren't a large impediment to progress.

    Ford has a decent track record of winning, but right now, his record with a McDonald's All-American on his roster isn't so great. Better health for Nash and senior J.P. Olukemi would help tremendously.

    Another losing Big 12 record from a team projected to challenge Kansas and Baylor for the title could leave Ford searching for answers, if not a new job.

Ben Howland, UCLA

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    When a coach signs one of the top recruiting classes in America, it's usually cause for celebration. For Ben Howland, it was a simple relief.

    A scathing Sports Illustrated report painted Howland as a pathological micro-manager during practices and games, who at the same time was completely oblivious to his players' indiscretions off the court.

    After three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008 under Howland, the program of 11 national titles has exactly one postseason win. That's expected to change with this season's heralded crop of recruits, but even the start of this season has been overshadowed by the eligibility controversy surrounding the class's jewel, Shabazz Muhammad.

    Another season of underachievement might be forgiven anywhere else. In Westwood, though, the banners hanging from the ceiling constantly remind everyone of where the program's been. If Howland can't get back there with this group of recruits, questions will be raised about his ability to get back to the Final Four at all.

Tim Jankovich, SMU

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    We didn't specify that all these guys were current head coaches. Jankovich is Larry Brown's coach-in-waiting at SMU, following five solid seasons at Illinois State.

    Any situation involving Larry Brown is always highly fluid, given his rambling tendencies. Jankovich could become a head coach three years from now, or he could be running the Mustangs by Christmas.

    Brown hand-picked his staff, packing it with skilled recruiters who could save him the effort of doing all the road work himself. While SMU is currently augmenting the roster with Division I transfers, the freshman classes will need to be strong sooner rather than later.

    When SMU joins the Big East next season, the Mustangs need to be ready to compete immediately. Otherwise, a school that has designs on competing with the likes of Louisville and Georgetown will spend most of its time rubbing elbows with Providence and DePaul.

Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss

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    Andy Kennedy got a two-year contract extension from Ole Miss last season. That may make next year even bigger than this one. First, however, he'll need to get there.

    In five of Kennedy's six years, the Rebels have won 20 games and reached the NIT. In any mid-major conference, he'd likely have been getting some power-conference offers. In the SEC, the question lingers: why can't Ole Miss get onto the right side of the bubble?

    Consistency is a virtue, one that's forever extolled in players. In coaches, consistently winning 60 percent of their games and getting into the NIT is called something else.

    Average.

    In the SEC, like the ACC and Big Ten, average can make a coach look bad. A solid recruiting class, including national junior college player of the year Marshall Henderson, should help Kennedy reach his usual level, but just one more step will go a long way toward keeping his job safe.

Kevin Ollie, Connecticut

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    There is no one with more to lose this season than Kevin Ollie.

    Following his promotion to the post vacated by his mentor Jim Calhoun, the former UConn point guard was only offered a one-year contract by his alma mater. That one year will be spent in charge of a team that has no postseason to look forward to.

    He returns some substantial talent, and that talent has already pulled off a massive win by defeating Michigan State in Germany. Ollie's tenure at UConn will ride primarily on his ability to get his players to battle hard for little more than their coach's future.

    Make no mistake, if UConn doesn't keep Ollie, he'll still have his pick of offers next offseason.

    For the storybook ending and the chance to continue his career where it began, though, the future is now.

Steve Prohm, Murray State

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    Murray State caught some eyes with a huge unbeaten run to start last season. The Racers rode that momentum to a No. 6 seed and a second-round win in the NCAA tournament.

    Coach Steve Prohm inherited a talented squad, but his second season sees the cupboard just a little less full. All-American Isaiah Canaan is almost capable of singlehandedly willing the Racers to an Ohio Valley Conference title, but he's a senior this year, as are several of Prohm's other top producers.

    The suspension of guard Zay Jackson dealt a stiff blow to Murray's depth, and the OVC's addition of Belmont puts a big hurdle in the Racers' path to the title.

    Once Canaan leaves, the possibility exists that MSU's national relevance will exit the building with him.

    Much like Jim Christian at Ohio, Prohm's moment is now if he wants to keep Murray State in the national discussion after the players that put the school there depart.

Herb Sendek, Arizona State

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    When a power conference is bad enough that its regular-season champion can't even reach the NCAA tournament, a team that went 6-12 in that league has to be pretty terrible. Herb Sendek's Arizona State Sun Devils were 6-12 in last season's Pac-12.

    Sendek has won as many games in the last two seasons (22) as he did in the 2009-10 season alone. A dozen players in the past four years have left Tempe for other programs. Assistant coaches have also departed, including one defecting to conference rival Washington.

    On the court, Sendek has had to completely re-think his offense, seeking to implement a style more dependent on the fast break. ASU's ability to push the tempo will be tied to the fortunes of touted point guard Jahii Carson, who started out strong with 15 points and five assists in his debut.

    Any improvements the Sun Devils make, however, may be counteracted by similar power moves from competitors in a Pac-12 that simply can't be as bad as it was last season. Another 6-12 conference record may see Sendek following all the other expatriates out of the Valley of the Sun, albeit not by his own choice.

Tubby Smith, Minnesota

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    As I wrote here, Tubby Smith enters his sixth year in Minneapolis facing a crossroads.

    He's dealt with injuries on the court and player defections off of it. Legal issues surrounding star forward Trevor Mbakwe and son/assistant coach Saul Smith have complicated preparations for the season.

    With a healthy Mbakwe returning for a sixth season, the Gophers would appear to have the pieces in place for a run at the top four in the Big Ten standings.

    Young guards Joe Coleman, Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins matured during last season's run to the NIT final. Point guard Julian Welch and forward Rodney Williams provide experience, while towering sophomores Maurice Walker and Elliott Eliason give Minnesota a solid post presence.

    At the very least, it's not unreasonable to expect Smith to lead a return to the NCAA tournament. The loss of Mbakwe may have been the one thing that kept the Gophers out last year. If any other unforeseen discipline problems—among players or coaches—arise, however, Tubby's control of his program will come into serious and justifiable question.

     

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