College Basketball Betting: Analyzing First-Year Head Coaches
I’ve been analyzing and sharing my thoughts on first-year college basketball head coaches for nearly a decade. This year is obviously unique in that there’s supposed to be a season but how it will look is anyone’s guess. College football has been messy to say the least with a steady stream of cancellations due to COVID. Yes, there are fewer people involved with the day-to-day operations of a college basketball team but if you’ve ever laced them up, you know that the environment isn’t exactly conducive for distancing. That said, the season is expected to start in late November which means my prep work is already underway. So without further ado, let’s breakdown this year’s coaching changes.
Air Force (Joe Scott) – Obviously not an easy place to win and Dave Pilipovich did an admirable job during his near decade-long run. Service Academy athletics are known for running funky systems with the hopes of leveling the playing field. Enter Joe Scott who returns after a four-year stint from 2000-04. Scott and his Princeton offense led the Falcons to an NCAA Tournament berth in 2004. He then went on to three lackluster seasons at Princeton followed by a semi-successful run (146-132) at Denver. His Denver teams were defensive-minded and slow paced. Pilipovich strayed from that at the end with the thought that if the Falcons were going to lose, at least do so with some offense. Scott clearly knows the program but bringing him back suggests there wasn’t much interest from any up-and-coming assistants.
East Tennessee State (Jason Shay) – No brainer here as Shay was former head coach Steve Forbes’ right-hand man for five seasons. Forbes built ETSU into one of the more underrated mid-major programs in the country with a .751 winning percentage during his run. I’m not expecting much of any change in terms of pace or style of play under Shay.
Evansville (Todd Lickliter) – Lickliter took over mid-way last season when Walter McCarty was fired. The program was clearly in disarray and the Aces went 0-18 in MVC play, this after a 9-4 start which included a win over Kentucky and near upset of SMU. Lickliter was arguably the architect of what is now the Butler program but fell flat at Iowa and then spent three seasons in the NAIA ranks. He’s got a history of playing grind-it-out basketball — the Aces got noticeably slower under his watch — which falls right in line with most of the conference. After years of competitiveness under Marty Simmons, the university tried to make a splash with McCarty and it backfired. Clearly gun-shy, Lickliter was the safe albeit unimpressive choice.
Georgia Southern (Brian Burg) – Burg was a part of Chris Beard’s staff at Texas Tech which suggests defense will be a priority. Former coach Mark Byington did a fantastic job (four 20+ win seasons) before leaving for James Madison. The Eagles were two wins away from the NCAA Tournament before COVID hit. Not a bad situation for Burg.
Green Bay (Will Ryan) – Expectations with the program are apparently high after Linc Darner was let go. Darner led the Phoenix to the NCAA Tournament his first season and kept the program competitive all the while playing a fan-friendly brand of up-tempo basketball. Note that Darner’s firing wasn’t until May and reports indicate his staff was recruiting and inking players for the 2020-21 season. Enter Will Ryan who if you pause for a second and think of the last name and the state you’ll likely end up rightfully assuming it’s Bo Ryan’s kid. Ryan coached in the DII ranks last season and was obviously hired on the fly. Given his lineage, it’s safe to say Green Bay won’t rank in the top 10 in pace next season.
Iona (Rick Pitino) – Tim Cluess won 20+ games eight times, made five NCAA Tournaments, and won 73% of his games in MAAC play. It was difficult to watch Iona try to operate without him last season after he resigned due to health issues. Assistant Tra Arnold stepping in but the Gaels went a dismal 12-17. Given the program’s pedigree and hoop friendly location just outside New York City, it wasn’t a total shock to see Rick Pitino choose Iona as the start of his potential redemption tour. In theory, it’s a slam dunk hire: Pitino will have no trouble out-recruiting the rest of the MAAC and he’s likely picked up a thing or two during his coaching stint in Greece. As always, when I see high profile coaches return to take a lesser job, the question is will they see the process through? It may however be a good thing for bettors if Pitino comes in guns blazing with the thought of parlaying one good season into a return to (insert Power 5 school desperate for a turnaround). Could you see Pitino at Indiana or Texas next season? Absolutely.
James Madison (Mark Byington) – Byington has some cleaning up to do after four dismal seasons under Louis Rowe. Rowe went 43-85 despite playing exactly one (!) Power 5 team during non-conference play. It’s one thing when you lose a bunch of paycheck games, it’s another when you don’t and still go 21-51 in league play.
Loyola Marymount (Stan Johnson) – The Mike Dunlap era was pretty unimpressive. One winning season in WCC play and at the end, he had the Lions playing at a ultra-slow pace knowing they just couldn’t compete. That should change under Johnson who spent time with Steve Wojciechowski at Marquette and was credited with recruiting Markus Howard. Howard isn’t walking through the door but more aggressive recruiting would certainly be welcomed.
Northern Colorado (Steve Smiley) – Unless you are Montana or Weber State, sustained winning in the Big Sky is tricky. The budgets are slim, the travel is brutal, and most coaches are hoping and praying for a better gig. Jeff Linder built a winner during his four years at UNC and did just that by bolting for Wyoming. The Bears kept it in-house by hiring assistant Steve Smiley. Smiley knows the region having coached JC in Wyoming, with Randy Rahe at Weber State, and then four years under Linder. His first task is trying to replace Big Sky legend Jonah Radebaugh who graduated.
Samford (Bucky McMillan) – Here’s one you don’t see very often: A high school coach jumping right to the DI ranks. McMillan accomplished all he coach at Alabama’s Mountain Brook High School including national Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. McMillan cites Pitino’s 3-point heavy, in-your-face press as his foundation. Intriguing hire to say the least.
Southeast Missouri State (Brad Korn) – I’m not sure how Rick Ray lasted five full seasons. Nor how he won only 31% of his conference games. Korn comes from the Matt Painter/Bruce Weber coaching tree. He also played at Southern Illinois. There are a lot of downtrodden programs in the OVC (five ranked 316 or worse last season) and the gap between the fourth- or fifth-best team and SEMO isn’t that overwhelming. Recruit a few JC kids and convince them to guard and things should improve.
UAB (Andy Kennedy) – I actually liked Kennedy calling games on the SEC Network. And rather than rush back into an iffy gig, he took his time and found a destination that makes sense. Kennedy knows how to coach and win (245-156 at Ole Miss) but is he taking your program to astronomical heights? Probably not. His Ole Miss teams were entertaining but never defended. He doesn’t inherit a total rebuild. In fact, many argue Rob Ehsan got a raw deal after four straight winning seasons. Careful what you wish for, UAB. You canceled the football program, brought it back, and it’s now a legit mid-major thanks to Bill Clark’s loyalty.
Illinois-Chicago (Luke Yaklich) – The Flames reached the Horizon League Tournament finals last season but fell short of an ever-elusive NCAA Tournament bid. I thought Steve McClain did a decent job but what I don’t get is the apparent dissension between Chicago high school kids (or AAU coaches as it’s been rumored) and local colleges like UIC. DePaul has had issues wrangling in local talent and last year’s UIC roster didn’t have a single player from a Chicago Public League high school. Yaklich, who is from Illinois, and more recently as an assistant and both Michigan and Texas, appears to want to change that. He managed to lure a number of former Chicagoland preps back as transfers. Let’s hope for his sake they pan out after the Flames lost their three top scorers.
UNC Wilmington (Takayo Siddle) – C.B. McGrath was shown the door after three dismal seasons. Siddle was an assistant under NC State’s Kevin Keatts and has spent much of his life playing and coaching in North Carolina. McGrath originally came in with the promise of playing up-tempo but got progressively slower due to a lack of talent. UNCW was ultra-young and one of the worst offensive teams in the country last season. Siddle has some work to do.
Wake Forest (Steve Forbes) – Danny Manning’s departure marked a dark day in the gambling community. He was an easy fade and when success did occur, you could literally bet it wouldn’t be sustained. Forbes could run three walk-ons and the team trainer out there and the Demon Deacons would look more organized than they were under Manning. Great hire and one that should have taken place at least two years ago.
Western Michigan (Clayton Bates) – This is one to keep an eye on. Steve Hawkins had been at WMU since 2004. He was a solid coach but it was clear the program was on the decline so the school decided to part ways. But rather than bring in some new blood, because of COVID, the university was left in a tough spot and instead promoted Hawkins’ long-time assistant Clayton Bates. This apparently didn’t sit well with the players as the team’s top two scores transferred. And how does it sit with Bates — look, if it weren’t for COVID, you probably wouldn’t be here but it is what it is so good luck this season! Not a good situation.
Wyoming (Jeff Linder) – One of the more enjoyable moments of last season was watching Wyoming’s improbable run to the MWC Tournament semifinals. Allen Edwards knew he was getting fired and so did his players. After playing slow all season in order to help make the outcomes a little more competitive, Edwards said screw it, rolled the ball out and the Cowboys were a few possessions away from playing in the championship. All that being said, Edwards probably need to go and hiring Linder was smart. Hopefully he turns things around because the MWC is a lot more enjoyable to handicap when going to Laramie is a nightmare.