February 10, 2009

First-year coaches finding early success

Indiana and New Jersey Tech didn't have much in common until this season.

Indiana is long on tradition but short on talent. NJIT has no tradition whatsoever.

Still, both programs felt a sense of relief in the past month. Indiana beat Iowa 68-60 last Wednesday for only its sixth win overall and its first Big Ten win of the season. On Jan. 21, NJIT beat Bryant for its first victory in 51 games.

That is something two coaches can share: The Hoosiers' Tom Crean and the Highlanders' Jim Engles have their first signature wins of their short tenures.

Not all new coaches stepped into the rebuilding jobs Crean and Engles have undertaken, but all have their challenges.

Of the 44 programs that changed coaches before the season, only five are in the latest Rivals.com projected field of 65. Nine first-year coaches reached the NCAA tournament last season, and it was six in 2007.

Here's a look at the top new coaches of 2008-09 so far:


Buzz Williams, Marquette
Tom Crean, hired at Indiana
Williams, who was coach for one season at New Orleans before becoming a Marquette assistant last season, inherited a veteran Golden Eagles team led by senior guards Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews. Winning was not foreign to this group, which had played in three consecutive NCAA tournaments. Still, Marquette has exceeded expectations with its 9-1 start in Big East play. A make-or-break regular stretch beckons with Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse to end the regular season, but Williams hasn't let Marquette slip with Crean's departure.

Darrin Horn, South Carolina
Dave Odom, retired
The Gamecocks went to one NCAA tournament (but won two NITs) in seven seasons under Odom. They appear poised to return to the NCAAs this season. Horn inherited four returning starters, but he says that doesn't mean much since those four starters went 14-18 overall and 5-11 in the SEC last season. The most important "leftover" was guard Devan Downey, who is averaging more than 20 points per game in Horn's up-tempo attack. Horn took Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16 last season, a run keyed by a last-second upset of Drake in the first round. This South Carolina team has a similar never-say-die attitude, with last-second wins over Baylor, Florida and Kentucky.

Trent Johnson, LSU
John Brady, fired (he later was hired at Arkansas State)
Like Williams and Horn, Johnson inherited some talent and experience. Three of his players Tasmin Mitchell, Chris Johnson and Garrett Temple played on LSU's 2006 Final Four team. Most of Johnson's focus early in Baton Rouge dealt with off-court matters. He pushed his team into the classroom and the weight room before letting them loose in the gym. With Mitchell now healthy, LSU has the potential to cruise to the SEC West title.

Mike Montgomery, California
Ben Braun, fired (he later was hired at Rice)
Montgomery made his mark during a long run at Stanford, and to see him on the Cal bench is an odd sight. After four seasons away from college ball, he is working his magic with the Bears. Cal has cooled since a 15-2 start, the best since Pete Newell's 1959-60 team, but the Golden Bears are 18-6 and remain in the hunt for the Pac-10 title. Cal lost its two leading scorers from a year ago in NBA draft early entry Ryan Anderson and senior DeVon Hardin. It has been a group effort to make up for the loss of those two frontcourt players: The Bears and USC are the only Pac-10 teams with four players averaging in double figures.

Take a bow, new guy
Fifteen of the 44 schools with first-year coaches already have matched or improved their overall and/or conference win total from last season.
Team Coach 2007-08 2008-09
Arkansas StateJohn Brady10-20, 5-13 Sun Belt13-10, 5-7
CaliforniaMike Montgomery16-15, 6-12 Pac-1018-6, 7-4
CentenaryGreg Gary10-21, 4-14 Summit7-17, 5-7
DetroitRay McCallum7-23, 3-15 Horizon7-16, 2-11
IdahoDon Verlin8-21, 5-11 WAC10-12, 4-5
Jacksonville StateJames Green7-22, 5-15 OVC11-11, 5-8
James MadisonMatt Brady13-17, 5-13 Colonial16-9, 8-5
LSUTrent Johnson13-18, 6-10 SEC19-4, 7-1
Md.-Eastern ShoreFrankie Allen4-28, 2-14 MEAC6-16, 2-7
MercerBob Hoffman11-19, 6-10 A-Sun13-11, 7-6
N.J.I.TJim Engles0-29 as independent1-22
Oregon StateCraig Robinson6-25, 0-18 Pac-1010-12, 4-7
ProvidenceKeno Davis15-16, 6-12 Big East14-9, 6-5
RiceBen Braun3-27, 0-16 C-USA7-15, 2-6
South CarolinaDarrin Horn14-18, 5-11 SEC17-5, 6-3
Craig Robinson, Oregon State
Jay John, fired
For now, Robinson remains best known for being the President's brother-in-law. Perhaps one day he also will be the first coach to take Oregon State to the NCAA tournament since 1990. That won't happen this season, but the Beavers still have made a remarkable turnaround. After going 0-18 in the league last season, Oregon State is 4-7 this season. A former Ivy League star at Princeton, Robinson brought his version of Pete Carril's offense to Corvallis. And he obviously can name-drop better than anyone in the conference.

Keno Davis, Providence
Tim Welsh, fired
Providence hasn't gone to the NCAA tournament since 2004, but remains on the periphery of the at-large discussion this season. Providence is 14-9 overall and 6-5 in the Big East; in league play, the Friars have beaten every team they should and are 1-5 against ranked teams in the conference. Last season, Davis proved he can resurrect a program by leading Drake to a Missouri Valley Conference title and its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1971.

Ken McDonald, Western Kentucky
Darrin Horn, hired at South Carolina
Horn is worthy of praise for the job he has done at South Carolina; so is Horn's replacement. McDonald, who was hired off Texas' staff, has overcome the loss of All-Sun Belt players Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton and has the Hilltoppers atop the Sun Belt East Division. Western Kentucky reached the Sweet 16 last season, and the Hilltoppers hope that experience and the experience they gained beating Louisville on Nov. 30 will help them if they get back to the NCAAs this season.

Jim Christian, TCU
Neil Dougherty, fired
As with almost every other school in Texas, basketball always will take a backseat to football at TCU. Christian didn't inherit a tournament-bound program, but he is making strides with the Horned Frogs. TCU started 4-1 in the rugged Mountain West before falling back into the pack. Christian seems extremely unlikely to extend his personal streak of six consecutive 20-win seasons, but he should hit that mark at TCU sooner rather than later.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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