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Under-the-Radar College Basketball Coaches on the Brink of Being Elite

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2014

Under-the-Radar College Basketball Coaches on the Brink of Being Elite

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    Derek Kellogg has Massachusetts in line for its first NCAA tournament bid since 1998.
    Derek Kellogg has Massachusetts in line for its first NCAA tournament bid since 1998.Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

    Take a quick scan of the latest Associated Press Top 25 college basketball poll, and there's one thing most of those teams have in common besides great records: Elite coaches.

    While the skills and talents of the players are a huge part of the success of these teams, no school can manage to have sustained success without a top-level coach. It's why the likes of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Syracuse are consistently winning, and why other schools are constantly striving to find that elite leader to transform the program into a powerhouse.

    Each year a handful of power conference schools will dip down into the lower ranks in search of the next big thing, whether it be a coach with a long history of success or a hot coach riding a brief wave of notoriety.

    Examples from the crop of coaches in their first season at their respective schools: UCLA's Steve Alford was hired after seven seasons at New Mexico, while USC plucked Andy Enfield from Florida Gulf Coast mostly on the merits of the Eagles' Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 last March.

    More such upward moves are likely to happen this offseason. And when they do, hiring athletic directors would be keen to vet this list of under-the-radar coaches that appear ready for a shot at the big time.

Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Years at school: Eight

    2013-14 record: 19-2

    Why he's ready to move up: Mick Cronin has Cincinnati as the surprising leaders of the new American Athletic Conference, where the Bearcats are 8-0 heading into Thursday's game at Louisville. It's been a steady climb of improvement during his tenure at the school, which began after Bob Huggins was fired in 2006.

    The Bearcats are a lock to make their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance, and a deep run is possible thanks to a bruising defense that allows less than 58 points per game and holds opponents to 38 percent shooting.

    Cronin was plucked from the lower ranks of Murray State, where he won 69 games in three seasons. He's already shown he can turn around a struggling program, and could be a prime choice to do it again.

Ron Hunter, Georgia State

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Years at school: Three

    2013-14 record: 14-6

    Why he's ready to move up: Ron Hunter spent 19 years at IUPUI, overseeing the school's ambitious jump from NAIA to Division I in 1998-99. And though he only led the Jaguars to one NCAA tourney appearance, they never had a losing record after 2000-01.

    Georgia State saw what he could do at a school competing in the hotbed of college hoops, Indiana, and figured he was a great choice to try to turn the commuter Atlanta school back into a contender like it was under Lefty Driesell in the early 2000s.

    After a pair of okay years to start, this season Hunter has GSU leading the Sun Belt Conference with a 7-0 mark as it tries to return to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2001.

    Hunter might be best known, though, for his continued effort to raise awareness about children worldwide who are lacking proper footwear. Each season since 2008, Hunter has coached at least one game barefoot, and during that time he's helped collect six million pairs of shoes for a charity called Samaritan's Feet.

Derek Kellogg, Massachusetts

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    Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

    Years at school: Six

    2013-14 record: 17-2

    Why he's ready to move up: Derek Kellogg spent eight years milking all the knowledge out of John Calipari as an assistant at Memphis, including the Tigers' NCAA runner-up team in 2007-08.

    When UMass was looking for a coach after Travis Ford left for Oklahoma State in 2008, Kellogg was an obvious choice due to his legacy as a standout point guard and team captain with the Minutemen from 1991-95. Those teams were also coached by Calipari, and served as the foundation for the UMass team that made the 1996 Final Four.

    Kellogg has won 20-plus games the previous two seasons, but fell in the Atlantic 10 tourney both years and failed to make the NCAA field. Now, thanks to fiery guard Chaz Williams, the Minutemen are 4-1 in the A-10 and looking like a good bet to earn the school's first NCAA bid since 1998.

Tod Kowalczyk, Toledo

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Years at school: Four

    2013-14 record: 17-2

    Why he's ready to move up: Tod Kowalczyk inherited a dreadful Toledo program in 2010-11, and the best he could do was match the Rockets' output of four wins from the year before. But since then, it's been a fast rise to the top of the Mid-American Conference.

    The Rockets began this season 12-0 before back-to-back losses, first at Kansas and then to open league play at Western Michigan. Since then it's been five more victories, including an impressive 14-point win at MAC power Akron.

    Kowalczyk came to Toledo after eight solid seasons at Green Bay, going from 10 wins in 2002-03 to 22 in each of his last two years.

Mike Lonergan, George Washington

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Years at school: Three

    2013-14 record: 16-3

    Why he's ready to move up: Mike Lonergan was a successful Division III coach for more than a decade at Catholic University before moving into Division I as an assistant for Gary Williams at Maryland in 2004. One year working there helped him land the head job at Vermont, where he had the tough task of replacing colorful (and wildly successful) Tom Brennan.

    In six years with the Catamounts, Longergan averaged 21 wins and finished with the highest win percentage in school history, credentials that earned him the George Washington gig and a return to the Washington, D.C. area.

    His first two years with the Colonials were rough, but this season he's already surpassed those previous win totals thanks to Indiana transfer Maurice Creek and a young-but-experienced roster.

Russell Turner, UC Irvine

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    Reed Saxon/Associated Press

    Years at school: Four

    2013-14 record: 13-8

    Why he's ready to move up: It took Russell Turner a long time to get a head coaching job, but after a few rough seasons he's got UC-Irvine playing the school's best ball in more than a decade.

    Turner spent six years working under Dave Odom at Wake Forest, then was with Mike Montgomery at both Stanford and the NBA's Golden State Warriors from 2000 to 2010 before coming to Irvine. Last year the Anteaters won 21 games, the most since 2003, and won a game in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament to give the program its first postseason victory since 2002.

    UC-Irvine has never made the NCAA tournament, but at 4-1, it currently leads the wide-open Big West Conference.

Donnie Tyndall, Southern Mississippi

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Years at school: Two

    2013-14 record: 18-3

    Why he's ready to move up: Donnie Tyndall didn't have much of a repertoire when Southern Mississippi hired him to replace Larry Eustachy following the 2011-12 season, but he quickly made himself a known commodity. He led the Golden Eagles to a 27-win effort in his first year, getting them to the NIT quarterfinals.

    This year USM has raced out to an 18-3 start and a co-leading 5-1 mark in Conference USA. His team was one of the youngest in the nation last season, and now with that experience looks primed to get the Eagles back into the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.

    Tyndall's rising stock hasn't gone unnoticed by USM, which earlier this month signed him to a four-year extension worth at least $500,000 per season through 2018.

Brian Wardle, Green Bay

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    Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

    Years at school: Four

    2013-14 record: 17-3

    Why he's ready to move up: Brian Wardle grew up in Illinois, but for nearly all of the past 17 years he's called Wisconsin his home. First as a player at Marquette for Tom Crean, then two seasons as Crean's director of basketball operations before moving over to Green Bay in 2005.

    He's been on the Phoenix staff ever since, working as an assistant for Tod Kowalczyk and then replacing him when Kowalczyk left to take the Toledo job in 2010.

    Under Wardle, Green Bay has gone from 14 to 15 to 18 wins in his first three seasons. This year they're 7-0 in the Horizon League, and in November it nearly pulled off just the second win over Wisconsin in school history.

Michael White, Louisiana Tech

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Years at school: Three

    2013-14 record: 17-4

    Why he's ready to move up: Mike White has had an athletic background since he was a kid, growing up around college sports as the son of Kevin White, athletic director at Tulane, Arizona State, Notre Dame and, currently, Duke.

    White was a four-year starter at Ole Miss, where he also spent seven seasons as an assistant under Rod Barnes and Andy Kennedy before Louisiana Tech hired him for his first head coaching gig in 2010.

    He's quickly put the Bulldogs into the mix in both conferences he's coached in, getting them into the Western Athletic Conference title game during last year's 27-win season and now a 5-1 mark in their first season in Conference USA.

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