Sports

Louisville, Xavier, UConn and more first year coach outlooks

It’s been a busy summer for a wide range of college teams under new management, many of them brand-name programs, and many of those aiming to return to the heights of old. No matter how high-profile the coach or team, year one is never an easy task, and no two jobs are quite the same. This year’s batch trends more toward long-term rebuilds—there are few coaches falling into a cushy inheritance of talent—but is no less intriguing as established coaches take on the weight of new expectations, or in some cases, lack thereof.

In highly-subjective order of short-term potential, here’s this year’s group of first-year coaches in major conferences, the pieces they’ll inherit, and where they’re headed.

Travis Steele, Xavier

Last season: 29–6, Big East regular season champions, lost in second round of NCAA tournament

Though Steele is taking on his first head job at 36, there are far worse situations than inheriting a program he helped build as an assistant for the last 10 years. J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett have turned pro and Chris Mack is off to Louisville, but Xavier returns enough talent to play its way into the tournament mix and remain in the upper part of the Big East. Steele had long been regarded as one of the better assistant coaches nationally, and the familiarity with his roster should make this a mostly painless succession—the Musketeers have a significant influx of transfer talent this season, and Steele has a trio of four-star recruits committed for 2019.

Junior Quentin Goodin and sophomore Paul Scruggs are both poised for breakout seasons and form one of the most athletic backcourts in the conference. Both need to improve as shooters, but their ability to put pressure on the rim should move the needle for the Musketeers. Factor in the distance shooting and experience of grad transfers Ryan Welage (San Jose State) and Kyle Castlin (Columbia) and the size and skill of 6’11” Zach Hankins, last season’s Division II Player of the Year at Ferris State, and this is a group that will be dangerous if they mesh quickly. Forwards Naji Marshall and Tyrique Jones also return up front. In theory, Steele and Xavier shouldn’t miss a beat in the short or long run.

Chris Mack, Louisville

Last season: 22–14, ninth in ACC

Mack’s name popped up in nearly every blue-blood job vacancy during the latter part of his tenure at Xavier, and he finally leapt at an opportunity to rebuild Louisville’s program. The shadow of the Rick Pitino era (and the ongoing Brian Bowen fallout) may still hang over this season, but the Cardinals should have enough returning talent to stay competitive. Four of last year’s five leading scorers (Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Quentin Snider and Anas Mahmoud) are off to the pros, meaning there will be plenty of opportunity to experiment and get the best out of the roster. Whether that’s enough to match last year’s 9–9 conference record is yet to be seen, but for better or worse, this is an in-between year. The Cardinals presently have four four-star recruits inbound for 2019, and whatever positive results and player development take place this season is ultimately about setting a long-term foundation.

Perennial underachiever V.J. King will likely be the key to this team approaching its ceiling—the junior wing has never quite tapped into his talent, but has always possessed the tools to be the best player on the roster. Sophomore bigs Malik Williams and Jordan Nwora are both capable floor spacers, and will be due for major upticks in minutes and shots. Graduate transfers Christen Cunningham (Samford) and Khwan Fore (Richmond) will help prop up the backcourt, and sophomore Darius Perry will get his first crack at a big role. Compared to the rest of the conference, it’s an unproven group, but there’s enough talent and athleticism on the roster that Louisville could conceivably grind out some results. At the very least, Mack should reasonably be expected to reorient the program in the right direction.

Penny Hardaway, Memphis

Last season: 21–13, fifth in AAC

No offseason move was more hyped than Hardaway’s entry into college coaching, and perhaps rightfully so. In year one, Penny inherits a roster that returns its four leading scorers (including AAC leader Jeremiah Martin) in a conference with room for upward mobility. There’s an outside chance the Tigers can swing a tournament bid for the first time since 2014 given the circumstances, but chances are the story of Memphis’s season will take place on the recruiting trail, where Hardaway’s prowess and connections are already front and center. Some level of success will be crucial ammunition for Memphis’s immediate recruiting cachet, which sets up a potentially huge year for the program.

Freshmen Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris, both local products with connections to Hardaway, should contribute right away, and may just be the first dominos in an influx of high-level talent. Another freshman, athletic guard Antwann Jones, decommitted from Texas A&M to come play for Hardaway. There should be impetus to let the kids play and set a precedent for recruits, as Hardaway is already involved with a host of elite players in the 2019 class. That includes No. 1 player James Wiseman (who played for Hardaway’s AAU team), D.J. Jeffries (who also played for Hardaway’s team) and Trendon Watford. Memphis’s reach extends beyond the south as well, bringing in elite 2020 wing Jalen Green in from California for an official visit in September. It feels like the energy has already turned around here, and some degree of short-term results are pivotal in making the program a destination. Memphis will be a fascinating storyline, at minimum.

Dan Hurley, UConn

Last season: 14–18, 8th in AAC

There’s nowhere for UConn to go but up after ostensibly hitting rock bottom under Kevin Ollie. Hurley built up a stable program at Rhode Island and was a strong hire, but there’s a ton of work to be done and not a ton of established talent on the roster. Senior guard Jalen Adams averaged 18 points per game last season, and junior Christial Vital (14.9 points) also returns. Former All-American Alterique Gilbert has seen his college career short-circuited by shoulder injuries, but is expected to be healthy and could be an X-factor. That backcourt trio will have to do the heavy lifting for the Huskies to reach the upper half of the conference, and following the mold of Hurley’s similarly guard-driven Rhode Island teams could be a viable short-term blueprint.

UConn’s frontcourt, conversely, remains a huge questionmark, and if none of the incumbent bigs step up, trying to play small and fast could be a pathway to overachieving. The AAC appears wide-open, which puts that scenario in play, but they’ll need to get something out of second-year forwards Tyler Polley and Sidney Wilson (a redshirt freshman)—both talented recruits with some ability for more. St. John’s transfer Kassoum Yakwe should play big minutes up front. The good news is that Hurley’s substantial northeast recruiting ties have already paid off, landing four-stars James Bouknight out of New York and Jalen Gaffney from New Jersey as part of next year’s recruiting class. This is another situation requiring patience, but the Huskies need to establish a trajectory this season as a baseline.

Tom Crean, Georgia

Last season: 18–15, 12th in SEC

This isn’t going to be an especially easy gig for Tom Crean as he returns to the coaching ranks, but there’s not much immediate pressure to win, and he’ll have some time to establish footing for the program. Crean has won big at Marquette and Indiana, and Georgia’s program offers definite untapped potential for recruiting (despite operating in the shadow of the school’s football culture). Apart from seniors William Jackson and Derek Ogbeide, he’ll open the season with a relatively young rotation and look to finesse a mid-conference finish (which is probably the best-case scenario for now). Crean has a pair of four-star wings committed for next season, and a positive start should pay dividends as far as recruiting is concerned.

Georgia was a fairly stout defensive team last season, but finished dead last in the conference in points per game under Mark Fox, who took the team to the tournament just twice in nine years. Leading scorer Yante Maten is gone, and they’ll have to replace his production by committee. Jackson, Teshaun Hightower and Tyree Crump all return in the backcourt, and intriguing 6’11” big Nicolas Claxton could take a step forward as a sophomore after showing some ability to space the floor. Four-star freshmen Amanze Ngumezi and Ignas Sargiunas (a Lithuanian import) should have a chance to earn roles immediately. The SEC should be deep once again, but a slight improvement on last year’s mark is a reasonable goal.

Kermit Davis, Ole Miss

Last season: 12–10, 14th in SEC

Davis went 332–188 during his impressive run at Middle Tennessee, but lifting the Rebels from the SEC basement will prove a tall task. Ole Miss went to the NCAA tournament just twice in Andy Kennedy’s 12 seasons, sat dead last in an increasingly competitive SEC last season, and will need a leap from senior wing Terence Davis—a potential NBA prospect—to make short-term strides. There was some preseason hype last year, and Davis isn’t completely starting from scratch—he’s had success recruiting transfers and out of the Juco ranks. It’s worth noting Ole Miss lost an August exhibition game against Canadian power program Carleton. In all likelihood, this will be an uphill climb.

Jeff Capel, Pitt

Last season: 8–24, 15th in ACC

Putting it nicely, Pitt was basically unwatchable last season, so the bar is rather low for Capel as he returns to head coaching after an unceremonious exit from Oklahoma in 2011. He rebuilt his career as Duke’s top assistant and ace recruiter, and will put that acumen to the test as he attempts to revive a once-proud program that fell completely by the wayside under Kevin Stallings and went an impressively bad 0–18 within the conference. In the offseason, Capel reeled in freshmen guards Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, all of whom should get some development time this season. Still, it’s likely this gets worse before it gets better. Any move back toward respectability would be a positive for the Panthers at this point.

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