Way-Too-Early Grades for Men's College Basketball 1st-Year Head Coaches

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 13, 2021

Way-Too-Early Grades for Men's College Basketball 1st-Year Head Coaches

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    Tommy Lloyd gets a thumbs up for his start in Arizona.
    Tommy Lloyd gets a thumbs up for his start in Arizona.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Among the six major conferences in men's college basketball, there were 13 coaching changes this past offseason.

    Two (North Carolina and Oklahoma) were the result of guys retiring. One (Texas Tech) was a backfill to replace a coach who left for another job. For the most part, however, we're talking about guys taking over programs from which the previous coach was fired.

    Accounting for how long the recruiting process takes and the fact that it's not uncommon for players to enter the transfer portal after a coaching change, we should probably wait at least three years before trying to assess whether a coaching change was a success.

    But who has time to wait for a proper pot of coffee to brew in the age of K-Cups?

    After eight to 10 games, we're ready to grade all of the new major conference coaches, several of whom are early front-runners for National Coach of the Year.

    These 13 coaches are listed in alphabetical order by last name. We'll also wrap things up with a few rapid-fire hits on first-year coaches from the mid-major ranks.

Mark Adams, Texas Tech

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    Texas Tech's Mark Adams
    Texas Tech's Mark AdamsAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Under Chris Beard, Texas Tech was a perennial contender that finished each of the past four seasons rated 21st or better on KenPom.com. The Red Raiders primarily reloaded via the transfer portal each offseason, thriving under the leadership of veterans with a fierce commitment to defense.

    And after six years as an assistant to Beard, Mark Adams appears to be well on his way to continuing that tradition.

    In the primary eight-man rotation are new transfers from Hampton, Louisiana, Oral Roberts, UTEP and Winthrop, but all those former minor-conference players have combined to become a major-conference contender that already has a marquee win over Tennessee on a neutral court. (It was a hideous game that went to overtime tied at 44-44, but it still counts.)

    Buckle up for a big one against Gonzaga this coming Saturday, but at 7-1 with a bunch of blowout wins against overmatched opponents, Texas Tech hasn't skipped a beat while changing coaches.

    Grade: B+

Chris Beard, Texas

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    Texas' Chris Beard
    Texas' Chris BeardChris Covatta/Getty Images

    It's kind of wild that after six years of being disappointed by Shaka Smart—a defense-first head coach who had never signed a 5-star recruit prior to arriving in Austin—Texas went right back to that same well to hire Chris Beard.

    At least Beard had a proven track record of success in the Big 12 with Texas Tech, but will he be able to transplant that from the Red Raiders to the Longhorns?

    He certainly brought in enough noteworthy transfers to be able to make an immediate impact, but Texas has fallen well shy of the hype thus far, losing at Gonzaga and at Seton Hall in the only two games it has played against teams in the KenPom top 175.

    I suspect they'll be more than fine. Those road games were a tough ask for any team, let alone one loaded with new transfers still figuring out who fits into which roles. And the Longhorns would've won the Seton Hall game if they had shot better than 1-of-13 from three-point range.

    That whole "never signed a 5-star recruit" thing? Dead and buried. Beard got a pair of them in next year's class in Arterio Morris and Dillon Mitchell.

    All the same, we expected more from this team, and Texas is now going to need to win the Jan. 29 home game against former head coach Rick Barnes and Tennessee in order to mitigate the major questions that are going to linger about this nonconference resume.

    Grade: C

Hubert Davis, North Carolina

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    North Carolina's Hubert Davis
    North Carolina's Hubert DavisAssociated Press

    Starting out with the recruiting, Roy Williams' retirement hasn't scared guys away from North Carolina. Hubert Davis has signed a pair of top-40 recruits (Seth Trimble and Jalen Washington) in next year's class, as well as a third 4-star player (Tyler Nickel). While it's not quite the quartet of McDonald's All-Americans that the Tar Heels got in the 2020 class, it's good enough for ninth-best in the nation.

    As far as this season is concerned, the defense was awful through the first five games, but they appear to be figuring things out on that end of the floor.

    And, evidently, having a former UNC shooting guard calling the shots is just what they needed to fix what had been an anemic offense over the past two years. Caleb Love and RJ Davis have been drastically better on that end of the floor in year No. 2 with the program, and transfers Brady Manek and Dawson Garcia have been major additions to an unusually potent perimeter attack.

    They went 0-2 against Purdue and Tennessee in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, but they did give the Boilermakers quite the fight and they've been flawless since then, including a dominant win over Michigan. There's work to be done to get back to vintage North Carolina levels of dominance, but these Heels are on the right track.

    Grade: B+

Earl Grant, Boston College

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    Boston College's Earl Grant
    Boston College's Earl GrantIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    After a 3-13 start last year and a 78-132 overall record since taking the job in 2014, Boston College finally threw in the towel on Jim Christian's fleeting attempt to turn the program around. The Eagles brought in Earl Grant from Charleston—who went 127-89 with a trio of 24-plus-win seasons over the last seven years.

    Things are already looking up.

    For starters, the recruiting has improved by leaps and bounds. Grant has gotten commitments from Class of 2022 power forward Prince Aligbe and combo guard Donald Hand, who rank among the 10 highest-rated recruits Boston College has ever landed. He also brought shooting guard Brevin Galloway with him from Charleston and added transfers TJ Bickerstaff and Quinten Post, each of whom has played a key role in BC's 6-4 start to the year.

    For the most part, they've beaten the bad teams on their schedule and lost close games to the above-average ones, but the Eagles did pick up a nice, convincing home win over Notre Dame earlier this month. We'll see how things go once conference play really gets underway, but we couldn't realistically ask for much more than what Grant has done thus far with BC.

    Grade: B+

Ben Johnson, Minnesota

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    Minnesota's Ben Johnson
    Minnesota's Ben JohnsonCRAIG LASSIG/Associated Press

    As was our suspicion during Richard Pitino's time with Minnesota, it turns out this team is pretty decent when it actually makes some shots.

    The Ben Johnson-led Golden Gophers still aren't an elite shooting team by any means. But compared to an average national rank of 271.3 in effective field-goal percentage over the past six seasons, ranking just outside the top 100 is a massive step in the right direction, and one that has led to an 8-1 start that includes surprising road wins over Michigan and Mississippi State.

    What you absolutely have to loveyes, I'm mandating itis that they are doing it almost entirely with guys who transferred up from mid-major programs.

    The only starter who doesn't fit that description is Eric Curry, who has been the least efficient starter and who had missed two of the previous four seasons because of injury. Rather, Payton Willis (from Charleston), Jamison Battle (from George Washington), Eylijah Stephens (from Lafayette) and Luke Loewe (from William & Mary) are leading the charge, with Sean Sutherlin (from New Hampshire) and Charlie Daniels (from Stephen F. Austin) adding valuable minutes off the bench.

    Minnesota lost all seven of last year's leading scorers and was just about unanimously expected to finish dead last in the Big Ten. And, in fairness, that could still happen. The Gophers did start 9-1 last year before losing 14 of their final 19 games and had similar second-half collapses in 2014-15, 2017-18 and 2018-19.

    But we're not projecting what will happen in the next three months; we're evaluating what has transpired through the first five weeks. For a first-time head coach, Johnson gets the highest mark possible.

    Grade: A+

Tommy Lloyd, Arizona

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    Arizona's Tommy Lloyd
    Arizona's Tommy LloydRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    As we'll get to shortly, the job that T.J. Otzelberger has done in his first year at Iowa State is beyond reproach.

    But if you're naming a too early National Coach of the Year, it just about has to be Arizona's Tommy Lloyd.

    After 20 years as an assistant at Gonzaga, Lloyd finally decided to try his hand at coaching a program of his own. He went to Arizona, which has not been to a Final Four since the year before Lloyd became a full-time assistant with the Zags.

    With wins away from home against Michigan (neutral) and Illinois (road) already under his belt, it sure does feel like he might be the guy to finally get the Wildcats back to the promised land.

    Lloyd inherited an extremely young team. Per KenPom, Arizona ranks 355th out of 358 teams in experience, the lowest among all major conference teams. We're not talking 5-star studs, either. Sean Miller signed five 4-star guys in last year's class, but none of them ranked in the top 50 overall. And one of those 4-star guys (Daniel Batcho) transferred to Texas Tech without ever playing a game at Arizona.

    Between that and the fact that Arizona is still recovering from that whole FBI sting operationthe Wildcats merely served a one-year, self-imposed postseason ban, but there's no question it had an impact on their recruitingLloyd could have put together a sub-.500 season in Year No. 1 and would have gotten a mulligan. The Wildcats did lose four of their six leading scorers, after all.

    Instead, he is thriving and undefeated. If that isn't worth an A+, I don't know what is.

    Grade: A+

Porter Moser, Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma's Porter Moser
    Oklahoma's Porter MoserMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Over the past five seasons at Loyola-Chicago, Porter Moser's teams played at a snail-like pace, generally ranked among the best in the nation at effective field-goal percentage and defended with a purpose, posting high marks in turnover percentage, defensive rebound percentage and defensive free-throw rate. Those Ramblers teams didn't do much offensive rebounding and rarely blocked shots, but the best ones were efficient, legitimate national contenders.

    Thus far, that's also true of the Sooners.

    They're shooting 60.3 percent from inside the arc. They've been stingy on defense. And they are 8-2 with a pair of high-quality wins already on their resume.

    Moser's fingerprints are all over this impressive start.

    Not only is Oklahoma's head coach new, but Tanner Groves (Eastern Washington) and Jordan Goldwire (Duke) have been two of the most valuable transfers in the country. Groves had 20 points and eight rebounds in the Dec. 1 win over then-No. 14 Florida. Goldwire had 14 points, six assists and three steals in Saturday's win over then-No. 12 Arkansas. Credit to Moser for getting those newcomers to mesh seamlessly with the returning veterans.

    The Sooners are ever so close to being undefeated, too. In the loss to Utah State in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, they blew a six-point lead in the final four minutes. And in the overtime loss to Butler, they blew an eight-point lead in the final eight minutes of regulation, as well as a four-point lead in the final 75 seconds of OT.

    Considering they lost all of Austin Reaves, De'Vion Harmon, Brady Manek, Alondes Williams and Kur Kuath after last season, it's remarkable that Oklahoma is already in the conversation as the Big 12's third-best team behind Baylor and Kansas.

    Grade: A-

T.J. Otzelberger, Iowa State

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    Iowa State's T.J. Otzelberger
    Iowa State's T.J. OtzelbergerAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Let's not bury the lede: T.J. Otzelberger gets an A Freaking Plus.

    I'm all for handing out mulligans for things that happened during a 2020-21 season that was significantly impacted by the pandemic, but Iowa State went 2-22, with those lone wins coming at home against KenPom No. 351 Arkansas-Pine Bluff and KenPom No. 265 Jackson State. The Cyclones were a dumpster fire, and while I look forward to finding out where Steve Prohm is going to land next in hopes of reviving his career, they had little choice but to make a change.

    To replace him, they went with a familiar face. Otzelberger only went 29-30 over the previous two seasons at UNLV, but before his successful three-year stint as South Dakota State's head coach, he spent eight years as an assistant at ISU, working at least one year under each of Prohm, Fred Hoiberg and Greg McDermott.

    The expectation was that it would take a few years before the move paid dividends. Because not only was this team dreadful last year, but it lost all five of its leading scorers, forced to pretty much start over from scratch.

    But if Oztelberger learned anything during his time with Hoiberg, it was the importance of the transfer portal. He brought in high-major castoffs from Kansas, Minnesota, Penn State and Washington State, as well as one of the starters from his UNLV team, and has what is very unexpectedly one of the final seven undefeated teams left in the country with wins over Iowa, Memphis, Xavier and Creighton already on the resume.

    Grade: A Freaking Plus

Micah Shrewsberry, Penn State

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    Penn State's Micah Shrewsberry
    Penn State's Micah ShrewsberryGary M. Baranec/Associated Press

    What's happening at Arizona and Iowa State is very much the exception to the rule. You're not supposed to be able to take over a team that struggled last season before losing the majority of its leading scorers and then carry an undefeated record into mid-December.

    What's going on with Micah Shrewsberry and the Nittany Lions is the rule.

    Penn State hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2011, and it spent all of last season with an interim coach (Jim Ferry) after Pat Chambers stepped down amid an investigation into his past conduct. The team went 11-14 overall (though it did finish the year at No. 40 on KenPom) and then lost leading scorers Myreon Jones and Izaiah Brockington, as well as starting point guard Jamari Wheeler, who didn't score a ton but was a critical glue guy on both ends of the floor who led the team in minutes played.

    Though Shrewsberry was able to land one key transfer (Jalen Pickett from Siena), the Nittany Lions have predictably taken a step backward toward the Big Ten's basement.

    They're 5-5 overall with a hideous 25-point loss to Massachusetts, a not-great home loss to Miami and a pair of double-digit losses to Ohio State and Michigan State for an 0-2 start to league play. Their best win was probably the neutral-site game against Oregon State, which is 1-8 thus far in its disappointing campaign.

    But, again, we weren't expecting much from Penn State. The real question for Shrewsberry in his first season was recruiting, and Penn State has put together a 2022 class that currently ranks top 25 nationally. If that holds, it would be Penn State's highest-rated class in 247 Sports history (dating back to 2002), as well as just its second-ever top-50 class, joining a 2016 class that ranked 26th.

    While this team has little to no hope of making the NCAA tournament this year, I have a hard time giving Shrewsberry anything less than a B for succeeding in his primary first-year objective.

    Grade: B

Shaka Smart, Marquette

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    Marquette's Shaka Smart
    Marquette's Shaka SmartNick Krug/Associated Press

    Had we done this little exercise 12 days into the season, Shaka Smart would've gotten an easy A-plus. Marquette started out 5-0 with a shocking win over Illinois (sans Kofi Cockburn) and a pair of nice wins in Charleston against Ole Miss and West Virginia.

    Considering Marquette hadn't even gotten out to a 3-0 start to a season since 2011-12, it was a noteworthy first impression for Smart in Milwaukee.

    However, Darryl Morsell (who scored 21-plus in each of Marquette's first four games) has since come crashing back to earth, and so have the Golden Eagles along with him. They lost by 16 to St. Bonaventure, lost by 13 to Wisconsin and never even threatened to make things interesting in Saturday night's loss to UCLA.

    None of those are bad losses, but they do collectively make it much tougher to argue for an A grade here, even though Marquette would exceed expectations if it finishes any better than bottom two in the Big East.

    It doesn't help matters that Marquette's 2022 recruiting class is no more than a pair of 3-star guards. Then again, signing 5-star guys at Texas wasn't working out all that well for Smart, so maybe he can get back to his VCU roots by honing in on lower-rated guys who better fit his coaching scheme.

    Grade: B

Craig Smith, Utah

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    Utah's Craig Smith
    Utah's Craig SmithTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    At South Dakota, Craig Smith took over a program that had gone 32-56 in the three seasons before his arrival. By year No. 4, he went 26-9 and was ready for a bigger challenge.

    At Utah State, he inherited a team that had hovered around the .500 mark for half a decade and promptly went 74-24 in his three seasons at the helm.

    Utah is hoping for similar results after Larry Krystkowiak got the boot for a 45-42 record over the past three seasons, but early returns have been inconclusive.

    The Utes are 7-3, but they are 7-0 against teams outside the KenPom top 100 with three losses by double digits to teams inside the top 100. No impressive wins; no horrific losses.

    In fairness, there was a mass exodus of talent when Utah fired their Coach K. Timmy Allen is now thriving at Texas. Alfonso Plummer is shooting the lights out at Illinois. Ian Martinez went to Maryland. Pelle Larsson went to Arizona. Mikael Jantunen went back to Finland to play professionally. And Rylan Jones and Coach Smith passed like two ships in the night on his way to Utah State.

    But while much of the Pac-12 outside of Arizona, UCLA and USC has underachieved to an astounding degree, at least Utah has been competent. For that, we give Smith some credit.

    Grade: B

Tony Stubblefield, DePaul

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    DePaul's Tony Stubblefield
    DePaul's Tony StubblefieldNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    DePaul has been in the Big East since the summer of 2005, but the Blue Demons have yet to represent the conference in the NCAA tournament. Heck, they haven't even been to the NIT since 2007, entering this season with an overall record of 151-283 (34.8 percent) over the past 14 years.

    So it's rather remarkable that Tony Stubblefield has DePaul sitting at 8-1 with a road win over Louisville in his first-ever season as a head coach.

    Up until that win over Louisville, there wasn't much cause for excitement. The Blue Demons played each of their first eight games at home, mostly against subpar competition. Merely losing by four points to Loyola-Chicago was probably their most impressive feat through the first month of the season.

    But getting 33 points and 14 rebounds from breakout second-year player David Jones in a road win over the Cardinals was one of the most noteworthy results in DePaul men's hoops in a long time.

    Whether it'll translate to success in the Big East or any sort of improvement in the eternal struggle to recruit the local hotbed of talent in Chicago remains to be seen, but DePaul might actually get a few votes in the AP poll that comes out Monday afternoon. That's not nothing for Stubblefield.

    Grade: A

Mike Woodson, Indiana

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    Indiana's Mike Woodson
    Indiana's Mike WoodsonAndy Manis/Associated Press

    Indiana's decision to hire Mike Woodson was surprising to say the least. He had been coaching in the NBA for the past 25 seasons, but perhaps something about Patrick Ewing leading Georgetown to the 2021 NCAA tournament led the Hoosiers to believe an alumnus with no previous coaching experience at the college level might be the answer to their problems.

    And the early returns on the court have been just OK.

    Third-year big man Trayce Jackson-Davis has been outstanding, as Woodson seems to have gotten through to him about the importance of protecting the paint. His defensive effort is light years ahead of where it was last season. But even with his improvement from great to borderline elite, the Hoosiers lost to Syracuse, lost to Wisconsin and darn near blew a big first-half lead at home against St. John's in their three games against noteworthy opponents.

    The loss to Wisconsin was simultaneously inspiring and concerning, as they raced out to a 22-point lead before giving it all away. Better in-game adjustments will be necessary once Big Ten play really gets underway next month.

    To Woodson's credit, though, he and his staff have done all right on the recruiting front. Indiana signed Tamar Bates (No. 30 overall in 2021 class) within a couple of weeks of hiring Woodson, it added three key transfers in Miller Kopp, Xavier Johnson and Michael Durr, and it signed a 5-star guy (Jalen Hood-Schifino) in next year's class.

    Had they been able to hold onto that lead against the Badgers, things would feel a lot different. Then again, if the Hoosiers had fully blown that St. John's game, this would feel like a nightmare. Gotta love handing out grades five weeks into the season.

    Grade: B-

Other Hires of Note

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    Loyola-Chicago's Drew Valentine
    Loyola-Chicago's Drew ValentineMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Wes Miller, Cincinnati: On the one hand, Cincinnati drilled Illinois 71-51 on a neutral court. On the other hand, it lost a home game to Monmouth and didn't put forth much effort in Saturday's 20-point loss to arch-rival Xavier. But after finishing last season at No. 116 on KenPom and opening this season at No. 117, at least the Bearcats are back into the top 80 and just might be the best team in the AAC aside from Houston. Grade: B

            

    Pat Kelsey, Charleston: This one is intriguing because Winthrop to Charleston felt like a lateral move for Kelsey, who averaged 21.5 wins over the past eight seasons. But, if nothing else, he has sped up the Cougars, who currently lead the nation in adjusted tempo after nearly a decade of playing at one of the slowest paces in the country. They gave North Carolina a run for their money, and they would be 8-2 right now if not for a late meltdown in an overtime loss to Furman. Grade: A- 

             

    Drew Valentine, Loyola-Chicago: Porter Moser built something special with the Ramblers over the past half-decade before leaving for Oklahoma and handing the reins to his then-29-year-old assistant. And thus far, that young gun has kept things going just fine. Loyola-Chicago almost beat Michigan State in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and it led Auburn into the second half the following day before running out of gas against a good, physical team. Aside from that, the Ramblers have been flawless, including wins away from home over DePaul, Vanderbilt and Arizona State. Considering they lost Cameron Krutwig after last season, that's mighty impressive for Valentine. Grade: A

             

    Kevin Kruger, UNLV: Kruger is UNLV's fifth coach since 2015, and it doesn't look like he's going to be the answer to the Rebels' problems, either. They're 6-5, and they lost three consecutive games to UCLA, SMU and San Francisco by a combined margin of 62 points. At least they haven't lost to anyone outside the KenPom top 100, though. UNLV couldn't even make it out of November before suffering one of those bad losses in each of the past five seasons. And one of those seasons didn't even start until Nov. 24. Grade: C-

            

    Ryan Odom, Utah State: The architect of UMBC's life-altering win over Virginia in the 2018 NCAA tournament has taken his talents to Logan, Utah, and he has gotten the Aggies out to a 7-3 start with impressive wins over Oklahoma and Richmond and a near-win over Saint Mary's. The season-opening home loss to UC Davis is going to be a problem in bubble discussions for the next three months, but that game is already looking like an outlier in an otherwise solid season. Odom has done a fine job of maintaining what Craig Smith left him. Grade: A-

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