Up-and-Coming College Basketball Coaches to Watch in 2017-18
Much has been said about former Louisville coach Rick Pitino in the past month, but his son, Richard, is one of the top up-and-coming coaches heading into the 2017-18 college basketball season.
Young head coaches are always out to prove they are worthy of even better jobs than the ones they already have, but this year feels more important than ever, given the uncertainty amid the FBI's attempt to clean up the seedy underbelly of the sport. When all the dust settles from this shoe company / pay-for-play sting operation, there might be more openings on the coaching carousel than ever before—and these coaches will be among the top candidates for those jobs.
Candidates for this list only had to meet two criteria for consideration: no older than 40 with fewer than 100 career wins.
Even in an industry where most of the great coaches are going well into their 60s, it's hard to be considered an up-and-comer once someone is in their 40s. But we also had to include a wins threshold to avoid young stars like Shaka Smart who have already arrived as names and faces most common fans recognize.
That whittled the field down from 351 to around 35 viable candidates. From there, our ranking is based primarily on 2017-18 rosters/projections, however, this isn't meant to just be a pecking order of expected wins from young coaches. Supplementary factors like success in previous seasons or evidence that the program appears to be building toward something greater in 2018-19 and beyond were also considered.
T.J. Otzelberger, South Dakota State (40)
With Mike Daum still on the roster, South Dakota State is the team to beat in the Summit League. That's great news for second-year head coach T.J. Otzelberger, because he should be able to guide the Jackrabbits to their fifth NCAA tournament appearance in seven years. And with more than a decade's worth of experience as an assistant at Iowa State and Washington, one more tourney appearance should make him a hot commodity.
Scott Padgett, Samford (40)
Padgett just led Samford to its best season in more than a decade, and there could be more improvement ahead with all six of last year's top players returning. The Bulldogs are also adding Alabama transfer Justin Coleman, which could push them over the top in the SoCon.
Paul Weir, New Mexico (38)
In a controversial move between rivals, Weir spent one 28-6 season as the head coach of New Mexico State before heading to New Mexico. This is probably going to be a rough year for the Lobos after losing two key seniors and a bunch of transfers, but they have several noteworthy transfers sitting out this year in preparation for a big 2018-19 campaign.
Baker Dunleavy, Quinnipiac (35)
Dunleavy has never been a head coach before and Quinnipiac may well be the worst team in the MAAC this year, but keep an eye on this guy. He played (sparingly) for Villanova before serving on Jay Wright's coaching staff for the past seven years. If he can impart some of that wisdom on the Bobcats, maybe they'll win a handful of games that they shouldn't.
Bob Richey, Furman (34)
Richey has coached one game in his career, and it was a 26-point loss after Niko Medved (who was on this list last season) was hired by Drake in the middle of the 2017 CIT run. But Richey inherits a good situation in which Furman gets back all but one player from a 23-win season. The Paladins will be among the favorites to win a Southern Conference that has quietly risen up to become a respectable mid-major league.
Ryan Ridder, Bethune-Cookman (32)
Prior to getting his new job at Bethune-Cookman, Ridder went 95-28 as the head coach of NJCAA school Daytona State over the past four seasons. No one is expecting Bethune-Cookman to win the NCAA tournament, but with North Carolina Central expected to slip back to the pack this year, the MEAC is a crapshoot. There's no good reason that Ridder couldn't win this league and parlay it into a better gig.
9. Matt Lottich, Valparaiso
2017-18 Outlook: Someone Has To Win MVC
Matt Lottich was an honorable mention on this list one season ago with the note that even if things went well in his first year as a head coach, it would almost entirely be credited to senior Alec Peters, and that 2017-18 would be Lottich's chance to make a name for himself. Considering the Crusaders went 23-6 with Peters in the lineup and 1-3 after he suffered a season-ending stress fracture in his foot, that seems to check out.
So, what happens to Valparaiso now?
The Crusaders lost Peters, Shane Hammink, Jubril Adekoya and Lexus Williams, leaving them with Tevonn Walker and not a whole lot else. Maybe Oklahoma State transfer Joe Burton and/or Nebraska transfer Bakari Evelyn will amount to something good, but this is predominantly an unproven bunch, especially in the frontcourt.
The good news is that in Valpo's first season in the Missouri Valley Conference, there's no clear favorite. Illinois State has some potential to excel during a rebuilding year, and you have to like Missouri State's chances with Alize Johnson back for one final season. However, there's nothing close to a Wichita State that's going to run away with this league title.
It might only take one breakout player for Valparaiso to go straight from Horizon League regular-season champs to Missouri Valley regular-season champs. Whether that's Micah Bradford (shooting better than 31 percent from the field as a sophomore) or Derrik Smits (becoming a serious interior presence in his second season), there are options that could help highlight Lottich as a quality coach.
8. Maurice Joseph, George Washington
2017-18 Outlook: Not Great
Maurice Joseph wasn't even supposed to be the head coach at George Washington, but he was thrust into what appeared to be an unwinnable situation when the school had little choice but to fire Mike Lonergan in the aftermath of a July 2016 Washington Post story citing Lonergan's "verbal and emotional abuse" as the reason players were leaving the program in droves.
Despite that coaching change and the departure of five key players from the previous season, Joseph led the Colonials to a respectable 20-15 season. Of those 15 losses, 11 came by a margin of 10 points or fewer, including close calls against Miami (FL), VCU, Georgia and Penn State.
If Joseph can navigate another mass exodus for 20 or more wins, he would immediately become the most coveted young coach in the sport.
GW lost do-it-all star Tyler Cavanaugh and reserve guard Matt Hart as seniors, point guard Jaren Sina as an early (undrafted) entrant to the NBA and Jordan Roland, Collin Smith, Kevin Marfo and Collin Goss as transfers. As a result, there are only four returning Colonials who scored more than three points last season, and Yuta Watanabe is the only one of the bunch with anything close to star power.
But, as was the primary case for Valparaiso in the MVC, there's not much worth falling in love with in the Atlantic-10. Rhode Island has a great backcourt and there are a few returning 20 points-per-game scorers at other schools, but KenPom's preseason ratings don't have any A-10 teams in the top 60 nationally. And with just one game each against Rhode Island, Saint Joseph's and St. Bonaventure, George Washington doesn't need to be great to cobble together a solid record in this league.
7. Eric Konkol, Louisiana Tech
2017-18 Outlook: Conference USA Contender
When Mike White accepted the job of head coach at Florida, it opened the door for another up-and-coming coach to take the reins at Louisiana Tech. Eric Konkol—formerly an assistant to Jim Larranaga for more than a decade between George Mason and Miami—has capitalized on that opportunity, leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back 23-win seasons.
As was the case when White was there, though, those winning seasons have yet to result in an NCAA tournament berth, as Louisiana Tech keeps laying eggs in the C-USA tournament.
Don't be surprised if it's more of the same this year. Save for Erik McCree, every noteworthy player from last season is back, including star then-freshman point guard DaQuan Bracey. He isn't quite the same two-way phenom that Kenneth Smith was for this program a few years ago, but Bracey averaged 5.8 assists per game while running the offense like a seasoned vet. He could be an All-Conference player as a sophomore.
With Bracey leading the way, Louisiana Tech should be one of the top contenders in Conference USA, but the league will still run through Middle Tennessee. Even if Konkol isn't able to steer the Bulldogs to their first NCAA berth since 1991, though, a third straight 23-win season should be enough to put him near the top of the list of targets for any mid-to-lower-tier, major-conference program in need of a new head coach.
6. LaVall Jordan, Butler
2017-18 Outlook: Bubbly
LaVall Jordan is the only up-and-comer in our top nine with a career losing record, but try not to get too hung up on that minor detail. He was handed an impossible situation at Milwaukee, yet he came within six points of getting the Panthers into the NCAA tournament.
The far more interesting information is that Jordan was an assistant at Butler, Iowa and Michigan from 2003-16 before finally getting that opportunity. Butler—then in the Horizon League—was an NCAA No. 5 seed in his final season with the Bulldogs. And while things didn't go so well in the three years after he followed Todd Lickliter to Iowa, that didn't keep Jordan from getting a coveted job on John Beilein's staff, where he helped turn guys like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. into stars.
When Thad Matta was shown the door at Ohio State and former Butler head coach Chris Holtmann jumped at that opening, Jordan was given the unexpected mid-summer opportunity to become the head coach at Butler, where he had previously served as a shooting guard and as an assistant.
How the Bulldogs are expected to fare in his first season at the helm depends on whom you ask. Butler lost four of its seven leading scorers as graduates, but it still has Kelan Martin, Kamar Baldwin and Tyler Wideman, as well as George Washington transfer Paul Jorgensen. And there are enough "could develop into a key cog" guys on this roster—most notably Nate Fowler, Sean McDermott and Joey Brunk—that there's reason to believe Butler will have a seven-man rotation worthy of the NCAA tournament.
Regardless of how this season goes, though, it's hard to imagine Jordan leaving Butler. Maybe he would eventually take a blue-blood job if it were offered to him, but that isn't happening any time soon. This just might be the next year in a decades-long relationship.
5. Nick McDevitt, UNC-Asheville
2017-18 Outlook: Heavy Big South Favorite
Frankly, it's surprising Nick McDevitt hasn't already been poached by a major-conference program, considering he keeps winning games while those bullies keep poaching his best players.
Before McDevitt's first season at Asheville, top (would-be) returning scorer Keith Hornsby transferred to LSU. Two years and 1,244 points later, Andrew Rowsey left for Marquette after his sophomore season. The following year, the Bulldogs were led in scoring by freshmen Dylan Smith and Dwayne Sutton, who then transferred to Arizona and Louisville, respectively.
And yet, UNC-A's win total has risen from 15 to 22 to 23 over the last three years.
Finally, McDevitt was able to convince all of his top guys to stick around for another season, setting UNC-Asheville up for what should be its best season in program history. At any rate, it will clearly enter the season as the favorite to win the Big South with Ahmad Thomas and MaCio Teague serving as one of the top minor-conference one-two punches on the perimeter.
There's a good chance the Bulldogs will start four seniors and Teague (sophomore) en route to a school record of 25 or more wins. If McDevitt ever plans to leave Asheville, that would be the ideal time to explore other options.
4. David Padgett, Louisville
2017-18 Outlook: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The big question here is: What would success even look like for David Padgett?
Prior to this whole FBI hullabaloo, Louisville was on the short list of serious candidates to win the national championship. In our projected Top 25 shortly after the NBA draft deadline passed, the Cardinals were No. 7. But with Rick Pitino fired and stud recruit Brian Bowen still suspended from team activities, it's impossible to project a ceiling or floor for this team.
Would 28 wins, a top-four ACC finish and a trip to the Sweet 16 be enough for Louisville to remove the "interim" tag from Padgett's title? Compared to earlier offseason expectations, that would be a disappointment for this roster, but it almost feels like a best-case scenario.
What about 24 wins, a sixth-place ACC finish and a first-round exit from the Big Dance? Or what if they finish in the bottom half of the ACC and miss the NCAA tournament, but at least get through the next six months without anything else scandalous happening?
The 32-year-old, first-time head coach is in no man's land. Barring an incredible season, he isn't Louisville's long-term solution. But how he conducts himself and emotionally leads his players throughout the year could be what dictates his value on the open market if and when the Cardinals let him go.
3. Will Wade, LSU
2017-18 Outlook: Rebuilding
From Chattanooga to VCU to LSU in the span of four years, it's hard to even consider Will Wade an up-and-comer anymore, considering he has already more or less arrived. But if he can turn things around for LSU in short order, he's going to be the singular under-40 head coach targeted (or at least rumored to be targeted) when elder statesmen like Jim Boeheim (72), Mike Krzyzewski (70) and Roy Williams (67) decide enough is enough.
The Bill Self of the mid-majors, Wade has yet to finish in worse than second place in a conference in his brief career, winning at least 12 conference games and 18 games overall in each of his four seasons.
That streak is going to come crashing to a halt this year, but he should be back in business in 2018-19.
LSU lost Antonio Blakeney and Craig Victor from a team that was already among the worst in the major conferences. Most experts have the Tigers projected to finish in dead last in the SEC this year; however, that says more about the improved strength of the SEC as a whole than anything. LSU is a veteran team that should be decent with help from graduate transfers Randy Onwuasor and Jeremy Combs, as well as top-50 freshman Tremont Waters.
With highly touted recruits Naz Reid, Ja'Vonte Smart and Darius Days already signed in the class of 2018, a competitive, 14-18 type of campaign could be the steppingstone to competing next year. It won't get Wade a bigger and better job this coming offseason, but it's the start of a two- or three-year reload that could make him the most coveted guy in the industry.
2. Earl Grant, College of Charleston
2017-18 Outlook: Top Cinderella Candidate
College of Charleston has come a long way in the past few years. The Cougars won nine games when Earl Grant first became their head coach in 2014-15, improved by eight wins to 17 the following year and jumped another eight wins to go 25-10 last season.
Expecting them to continue that trend with 33 wins this year would be more than a bit of a stretch, but CoC is clearly the team to beat in the CAA.
All six pieces of last year's primary rotation return, including Joe Chealey and Jarrell Brantley. Both parts of that inside-outside duo ranked among the three best players in the conference as far as KenPom is concerned. Freshman Grant Riller was every bit as valuable as Brantley over the second half of last season, too.
And while the Cougars should be even better than they were in 2016-17, the CAA's other contenders are going to be taking a step backward. UNC-Wilmington was the best team in the league the past two years, but it was gutted by graduations, transfers and a coaching change. Towson was the only other 20-win team in the league, and the Tigers lost two of their three leading scorers.
Prior to getting hired at College of Charleston, Grant spent six years as an assistant to Gregg Marshall and four years alongside Brad Brownell at Clemson. That previous experience at bigger schools should pay major dividends on the open market once he passes this final test with the Cougars.
1. Richard Pitino, Minnesota
2017-18 Outlook: Final Four Potential
What a difference a year makes, right?
Last summer, it looked like Richard Pitino was on his last leg at Minnesota. It was nothing compared to the firestorms his father was dealing with at Louisville, but the younger Pitino had already endured his fair share of minor scandals. It was enough that we had him dead last among Big Ten coaches during that series of power rankings in May 2016.
Then he steered the Golden Gophers to their first NCAA tournament since 2013 and their highest seed (No. 5) since 1997. And this year's team should be the school's best in at least two decades. Just like that, Pitino went straight from sitting on the hot seat to being one of the hottest young coaches in the sport.
Expectations for Minnesota aren't quite as high as they were at the beginning of the offseason, as sophomore big man Eric Curry was lost for the season due to a devastating knee injury. The silver lining—if we can even call it that—is the Gophers have a fair amount of depth in the frontcourt and Curry wasn't projected to be a starter anyway.
If Dupree McBrayer can be a more assertive scorer, if Reggie Lynch can stay out of foul trouble and if Nate Mason can become a little more efficient with his shooting, Minnesota has a starting five capable of winning the Big Ten and competing for a national championship.
Where Pitino would even go from here is anyone's guess, but if things go according to plan for Minnesota this year, he would probably have the right of first refusal in the next ride on the coaching carousel.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.