Is turning around a college basketball program easier than you’d think?
Whenever a college basketball program spirals downward and a new coach takes over, it’s generally fair to temper expectations.
Let the new coach recruit his own players, the thinking goes. Allow him to properly implement his offensive and defensive schemes. That stuff can take time; some new coaches have a rough first three or four years before turning things around. There are countless examples — Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard comes to mind.
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The conclusion? Turning around a college basketball program in three years or less isn’t easy. But it’s certainly possible, as we’re seeing this season. If you’re a fan of a struggling team, the fix may be years away. But nail a coaching hire, tap into a few key players’ potential and get a lucky bounce or two, and the path to becoming a contender can be short.
Here’s a look at currently successful teams whose hopes looked bleak not too long ago.
The Buckeyes are ranked 22nd after missing the NCAA tournament the last two years. Thad Matta had a remarkable run in Columbus, but Ohio State’s arrow was pointing down. Insert Chris Holtmann — who’s done this before, as we’ll get to — and the Buckeyes are in contention for a Big Ten title.
In Holtmann’s first season at Butler, he took a team that wasn’t expected to make any noise and helped them earn a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament. Ohio State has a top-25 offense and defense, and Keita Bates-Diop is finally the player who many envisioned when he first set foot on campus. Bates-Diop is averaging 20.3 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 41 percent from 3; he averaged 9.7 points last season.
This was expected to be a rebuilding job. But just about any team can compete on defense — that’s less about talent and more about scheme and effort. Combine an improved defense with Bates-Diop reaching his full potential, and Holtmann has this group well ahead of schedule.
Jamie Dixon led a TCU program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1998 to 24 wins in his first year, and is likely headed to the dance in his second.
The Horned Frogs are 13-4 and have the nation’s No. 5 offense. TCU is probably even better than its record indicates — the Frogs’ four losses have come by a combined 11 points – and they aren’t doing it with any marquee talents. But several TCU players have improved under Dixon’s watch.
Kenrich Williams has blossomed into an all-Big 12 talent after looking solid, but less than superb pre-Dixon. Same with Vladimir Brodziansky. Jaylen Fisher was a savvy addition overlooked by other programs. TCU uses math to its advantage — the Frogs are shooting 41 percent from 3. They’re not going to physically dominate Big 12 foes, but if they’re trading 3s for 2s, the math can tilt in their favor.
The casual college hoops observer would be surprised to see TCU ranked. The Frogs are proof that quick turnarounds are possible.
The second to last sentence of the TCU section applies to Texas Tech as well. The No. 8 Red Raiders have the No. 2 defense, and Chris Beard is emerging as a star coach.
It’s important to point out that Beard didn’t walk into as tough of a situation as Holtmann or Dixon – but to go from fringe NCAA tournament team to national title contender in less than two years is pretty remarkable.
Former coach Tubby Smith deserves credit here, too. He took over a program that won a total of 19 games in the two seasons prior to his arrival. Smith reached the dance in his third year before bolting to Memphis.
But Texas Tech has 15 wins on Jan. 16. Between 2010 and 2015, the Red Raiders never won 15 games in a season. Veterans have improved over Beard, and his recruits have flourished. He was a home run hire for Texas Tech.
Hurley struggled in his first two years in Tempe, but in his third, he has the Sun Devils rolling. His strategy is bold — Hurley is all in on the pace-and-space, 3-point shooting bonanza. Arizona State has the nation’s No. 4 offense; he’s given Tra Holder and Shannon Evans the greenest of lights, and that daringness has made the Sun Devils extremely hard to guard.
The Sun Devils only made the NCAA tournament twice during Herb Sendek’s nine-year tenure. It’s too quick to anoint Hurley just yet — Sendek also made the dance in his third year — but Hurley looks to be well on his way to establishing sustained success. It didn’t take him long to cultivate a clear identity for a program that was previously lacking one.
When Rick Barnes took over at Tennessee in 2015, he was the Volunteers’ fourth coach in six years. Tennessee had some success — it won 24 games in 2013-14 — but when Barnes took over, the program was fresh off of a 16-win season, with little hope on the horizon.
Barnes didn’t turn the Vols around immediately, but the progress is clear. Tennessee is 12-4 and ranked 21st; the SEC is wide open, and it has a shot to win the league. The Volunteers were picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the preseason poll. Nobody saw this coming.
These coaches have something in common — they’ve gone against the grain in certain ways, particularly in the type of lineups they use. Barnes uses Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield — guys with small forward height and power forward bulk — as initiators of the offense, and it’s worked. Tennessee ranks 21st in offense after failing to finish inside of the top 70 the last two years.
Barnes has the Vols on the right track.