Count 'Em Down: Coaches at a crossroads

July, 26, 2013
7/26/13
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Our week-long Count 'Em Down series -- in which we've attempted to impose some order on the basketball landscape following the annual wave of coaching changes, recruiting and freshman summer entry, and (this year) conference realignment -- comes to its end today. So far, we've ranked indispensable players, seniors facing pivotal final seasons, teams we expect to take a step back and teams expecting to make a leap. Today: Coaches at a crossroads.

That's not as simple as a synonym for "hot seat." Some of the coaches you see on this list no doubt sit squarely atop the most overused cliché in sports, but not all such situations are created equally. What the gentlemen on this list share is less about job status than course correction -- it is a group of men that need to get their teams heading in a positive direction before questions about that direction start dominating the narrative.

[+] EnlargeSteve Donahue
Bob Donnan/US PresswireSteve Donahue has Boston College trending in the right direction, but he needs the Eagles to tighten up defensively.
10. Steve Donahue (Boston College): Steve Donahue is nowhere near his last legs at BC. For starters, he's only been at the school for three seasons; 2013-14 will be just his fourth. Plus, things are already trending upward: After a 9-22 2010-11 season, the Eagles improved to 16-17 last season, led by a group of freshmen (leading scorer Olivier Hanlan chief among them) and sophomores (specifically forward Ryan Anderson) more promising than the experienced seniors he inherited from Al Skinner in 2009-10. Donahue absolutely deserves more than one season to get going, because this is really more like his third year than his fourth. But he also needs to get even more improvement out of his group, and he needs to get his teams to play defense -- the Eagles have finished ranked No. 204, No. 188, and No. 174 in adjusted defensive efficiency in his three years, respectively. There are green shoots all over the place here, but they have to grow into something tangible. And soon.

9. Oliver Purnell (DePaul): In 2010, when Purnell left a Clemson program that had just become routinely competitive, the challenges became apparent at once. At the time, when ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenberg asked Morgan Park High School coach Nick Irvin for his thoughts on the hire, Irvin openly broke into "peals of laughter." The message you heard around town came through loud and clear: "We don't know this dude. DePaul didn't kiss the rings. LOL." It's one thing to deal with a decrepit arena and an apathetic fan base and a team that won a grand total of one (!) Big East game in the two seasons preceding your arrival; it's another to face all that with local ward bosses coaches laughing you out of the room.

There are signs, despite three years of quintessential DePaul struggle, that Purnell is finally, mercifully making some headway. This fall, Morgan Park's own Billy Garrett Jr. -- a four-star ESPN 100 recruit coming off a Class 3A national title under Irvin -- will be joining the Blue Demons. In May, the City of Chicago announced its plans to split a new McCormick Place arena with the school, slated to open in 2016-17. This fall, DePaul enters the almost-certainly-less-punishing new Big East. While on the court, DePaul's two best players -- Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin, lone bright spots during three otherwise forgettable seasons -- are seniors. No matter what happens, Purnell will be just fine. DePaul AD Jean Lenti Ponsetto was widely criticized for giving the 60-year-old coach a seven-year, $15 million retirement plan. How long Purnell will survive into the new era of DePaul hoops is up for debate. But he has a history of methodical rebuilds, and a chance to set the table for whatever comes next. This season looks like the best place to start.

8. Tony Barbee (Auburn): Covered at greater length here and here. The shorter version: When sophomore Shaq Johnson was dismissed from the team last week, he became the 12th player in Barbee's tenure to leave the school for one reason or another — which is the same number of SEC wins the school has had during his tenure. Auburn is a brutally tough job, no doubt about it, but when you combine bad basketball with bad dudes, even Tigers fans are bound to notice eventually.

7. Ken Bone (Washington State): Pretty straightforward stuff: Wazzu just hasn't been very good. Save for rising Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson's junior season, the Cougars have hovered around .500 -- not terrible, sure, but hardly good either. There is some promise for 2013-14. Bone is bullish on 6-foot-5 guard Que Johnson, who will join DaVonte Lacy and Royce Woolridge in the WSU backcourt. But Washington State is also losing center Brock Motum, by far its best player the past two seasons, and there seems to be little hope this team will suddenly leap into the top half of the Pac-12, let alone the NCAA tournament conversation, in Bone's crucial fifth year.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Dawkins
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsIt's a tournament bid or bust for Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins this season.
6. Johnny Dawkins, Stanford: This is an all-in year for the Cardinal, and fewer coaches have a more pivotal set of circumstances in front of them. Dawkins -- whose five-year tenure comprises zero NCAA tournament appearances, the lone highlight being 2011-12's defense-led NIT championship -- has all five starters returning, including Rock Island, Ill., product Chasson Randle, rising senior Dwight Powell, three other starters and two highly touted Class of 2012 talents (Rosco Allen, Grant Verhoeven) that never got close to making a real impact as freshmen, and need to do so quickly. There is real talent here, and real hunger for the Cardinal to wake up the echoes of late-period Mike Montgomery. This is Dawkins' most talented team. Anything less than a tournament bid will be regarded as a failure.

5. Craig Robinson (Oregon State): How hard is it to recruit to Oregon State? Even the president's brother-in-law can't do it. In Robinson's tenure -- which began in the summer of 2008, the same summer Robinson introduced his sister at the Democratic National Convention with a quip telling "any 7-footers out there" to give him a call -- he has recruited just two ESPN 100 players. Though his teams have improved somewhat during his tenure -- he got a 6-25 2007-08 team to go .500 in his first year, and his last two editions haven't been totally awful -- most of the high hopes of that halcyon summer have gone unfulfilled. With Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier becoming seniors this fall, and little in the pipeline to replace them, this is the year Oregon State has to either get noticeably better … or consider the remarkable possibility that it might actually have to fire the First Lady's brother.

4. Herb Sendek, Arizona State: You know at the top when we said these rankings were mostly about narrative? Well, here you go. Herb Sendek is a good basketball coach. He left NC State after fans largely turned against him (only to embrace the Sidney Lowe nostalgia festival, about which the less said the better), and by his third season at Arizona State, he had James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph playing really good basketball at a place that hasn't had much of that since … well, ever. Narrative status: Sendek is reborn! Eat your hearts out, Wolfpack! Etc. Since then, the narrative has flipped once more, culminating in a 2011-12 season in which the Sun Devils finished ranked No. 223 in the Pomeroy rankings. (Their leader in possessions that season, junior Chris Colvin, finished with an 81.5 offensive rating. If you don't know exactly what that means, let me help: It's really bad.)

Other low points included Trent Lockett's transfer; that time Sendek got way out over his skis claiming Arizona State didn't play slow (it did) no matter what rival recruiters say; and that time folks in Tempe, Ariz., stopped being tan and fit and sitting at amazing outdoor lounges long enough to notice the basketball team hadn't been doing all that well lately. OK, I made that last one up. But you get the idea. Things went bad. Boy, did they ever.

There is hope, however, in the form of local hero Jahii Carson, who arrived in uniform a year late thanks to academic issues but lived up to the billing last season. Carson's quick-twitch excellence got ASU into the bubble picture for a solid chunk of January and February. His pairing with rising senior Jordan Bachynski, who set the Pac-12 record for blocks (120) last season and is on pace to break Anthony Cook's 25-year-old career record this season, should not only make the Sun Devils an expected tournament team, but one good enough to push the top edges of the Pac-12. That would be just what the program trajectory doctor (note: not a real medical professional) ordered.

3. Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's: Remember 2004? Delonte West, Jameer Nelson, a 30-2 record, a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed … man. So many memories. Good times.

Here are the records of Martelli's St. Joe's teams in the years since: 24-12, 19-14, 18-14, 21-13, 17-15, 11-20, 11-22, 20-14, 18-14. There was one NCAA tournament appearance in that mix -- the No. 11-seeded 2008 team, which lost in the first round to proto-Blake Griffin. Not as many memories! Which is fine, really. When you have a season as good as Martelli had in 2003-04 (and the 2002-03 team was awfully good, too) at a school like Saint Joe's, you deserve to be grandfathered in even if you haven't been coaching at said school since 1995, which Martelli has. Dude's not losing his job any time soon.

So what makes this such a pivotal year? There was his shamefully vengeful handling of the Todd O'Brien transfer mess, for starters. But most interesting is the way the 2012-13 Hawks, which returned all five starters and were pegged by preseason polls to win the Atlantic-10, didn't improve one iota over the previous season. Instead, they became the poster child for why expecting teams to improve just because they bring everybody back is kind of silly. This year's group will lose senior Carl Jones, but has a battery of seniors remaining, and one more shot to make good on the promise everyone saw two years ago. If this team flops for a third time, well … what does that say, exactly?

[+] EnlargeRick Barnes
Scott Sewell/USA TODAY SportsWill losing his top three scorers mean another frustrating season for Rick Barnes at Texas?
2. Rick Barnes, Texas: As I found out reporting this story, the Texas basketball argument can get pretty weird. Most Texas fans don't even pretend to care about hoops, but when they do dip their toes in the water, they tend to argue that Texas should be better because … well, because it's Texas. Rick Barnes is all well and good, they say, but he hasn't won a national title, and any coach in the country would be thrilled to make big bucks in Austin. Throw some money at the problem! Make it rain, DeLoss Dodds!

As Burnt Orange Nation's Peter Bean, a die-hard Texas football and hoops fan, told me, things aren't quite that simple. The least engaged folks are also the most strident; the most dedicated are also the most cautious. See what I mean? Weird.

There have always been cries that Barnes is a recruiter lacking in X's and O's. Whether right or wrong, the one thing that has always kept this debate at bay -- well, besides the fact that it's basketball in Texas, I guess -- is Barnes' unimpeachably steady success. For 14 straight seasons, he made the NCAA tournament, usually with good and sometimes with great talent. Some of those teams may have been disappointing, sure, but they were always good. Until last season. With point guard Myck Kabongo suspended by the NCAA, the bottom fell of on a team that defended well (a Barnes staple) but turned the ball over approximately (rough ballpark estimate here) 84 times per game. Finally, fans arguing for a change had a legitimate down year to point to. Finally, the debate was real.

That's why this season is so big for Barnes. The Texas job is a good one, maybe even underrated, and the questions about whether he could go to the "next level" lingered long before last year's nadir. If the Longhorns get back to playing really good hoops, it will die down again. If not? It's going to get real, and Dodds might wake up just in time to realize he actually has a basketball program. Perish the thought.

1. Jeff Bzdelik (Wake Forest): In case you're unfamiliar with the nuclear waste site that is the Wake Forest fan-program relationship these days, the blog archives should get you up to speed. I also wrote a feature about the mess a month ago. To paraphrase the immortal words of Silky Johnson: What can I say about Jeff Bzdelik's tenure at Wake Forest that hasn't already been said about Afghanistan?

In all seriousness, it's a shame. And not just for the fans, but for everyone involved. Athletic director Ron Wellman probably made a mistake when he plucked Bzdelik from his struggles at Colorado. In Wellman's darkest hours, he might even admit it to himself. But the ugly performance on the court would only inspire so much outrage did fans not feel like their intelligence was being insulted at every turn. Fans know a program. They see when their arena is empty. Wellman has taken a rather dismissive tack, leaning on terms like "foundation" and "culture" without really communicating empathy for fans' frustration, and the cycle of distaste has gotten so bad that fans now want to fire the longest-tenured athletic director in the ACC. Bzdelik, meanwhile, seems (at least from the outside) like a perfectly nice, reserved guy who had no idea what he was getting into in the first place. Now he's a local villain. How insane is that?

Things are so bad at this point that you wonder if fans could ever be happy with Bzdelik. You have to wonder if there's any plausible level of success his next team could scale that would halt the popular uprising. We've gone so far down the rabbit hole it is hardly inconceivable to think fans would be cheering against their own team, paranoid that Wake brass will use any excuse to forge ahead.

Maybe that level of success exists. Maybe it doesn't. But boy, if any coach in the country needs a big season in 2013-14, it's Bzdelik.

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