The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nine college basketball coaches finding success in new homes

Tommy Lloyd has No. 3 Arizona off to a 15-1 start. (Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star/AP)
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If the hours after a coaching hire isn’t the best time to completely evaluate it — and often it isn’t — doing so after half of a season isn’t much better.

It’s a little better, though.

Most men’s basketball teams have played between 15 and 20 games, so there’s a decent idea now of what sort of identity a new coach wants to instill (or the best he can do for now). A full offseason, with roster construction and learning the lay of the land, is long in the books.

One year doesn’t make a successful tenure, but starting off with a team contending for an NCAA tournament berth is a good start. Here are nine first-year coaches who have their teams in the postseason hunt with less than two months to go before Selection Sunday.

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Tommy Lloyd, Arizona. After two decades as an assistant at Gonzaga, Lloyd landed one of the plum jobs out West. And with one of the least experienced teams in Division I (355th, according to KenPom.com), he has the Wildcats at 15-1 (5-0 Pac-12). Lloyd’s best moves to date? Getting players such as Christian Koloko, Bennedict Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis to stick around and then unleashing them in a high-tempo system.

Mike Woodson, Indiana. The NBA lifer (and a former head coach in Atlanta and New York) returned to the college game for the first time since his career at Indiana ended in 1980. The Hoosiers (14-4, 5-3 Big Ten) knocked off No. 4 Purdue on Thursday and are in decent shape to land the program’s first NCAA berth since 2016.

T.J. Otzelberger, Iowa State. Whatever disappointment there is in the Cyclones’ 2-4 start to Big 12 play is relative, because they were 2-22 overall last season. Otzelberger made a pair of NCAA tournaments at South Dakota State (2017 and 2018), spent two years at UNLV and rapidly remade Iowa State’s roster with a freshman point guard (Tyrese Hunter) and transfers such as Izaiah Brockington (Penn State), Caleb Grill (UNLV), Gabe Kalscheur (Minnesota) and Aljaz Kunc (Washington State). The defense-minded Cyclones are 14-4.

Drew Valentine, Loyola Chicago. The youngest coach in Division I at age 30, Valentine was promoted when Porter Moser left for Oklahoma. So far, so good. The Ramblers, a Sweet 16 team last season, are 14-2 (5-0 Missouri Valley) and have won 10 in a row since falling to Michigan State and Auburn in the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Shaka Smart, Marquette. A month ago, the Golden Eagles (13-6, 5-3 Big East) weren’t so impressive. But a five-game winning streak with defeats of Providence, Seton Hall and Villanova, coupled with an early victory over Illinois, has Smart’s first Marquette team trending toward the postseason. Smart’s decision to hit the reset button and leave Texas for a basketball-first school located about 90 minutes from where he grew up seemed shrewd at the time and already looks like it will work splendidly in the long term.

Hubert Davis, North Carolina. The former Tar Heel player and assistant took over for Roy Williams, and while the first season has been bumpy at times, North Carolina remains an offensive dynamo on its best days. Then there are outings such as a 29-point loss to Kentucky and a 28-point setback at Miami that have caused angst. Those get especially magnified with a first-time coach, but Davis is still in solid shape to get Carolina (12-5, 4-2 ACC) to its usual place in the postseason.

Porter Moser, Oklahoma. The ex-Loyola Chicago coach had the Sooners rolling along well until the realities of Big 12 play hit. The Sooners (12-6, 2-4 Big 12) have dropped three in a row, but they have enough opportunities to stabilize and land the program’s eighth NCAA berth since 2013.

Chris Beard, Texas. The whole point of the Longhorns poaching Beard, who took Texas Tech to the national title game in 2019, was to reignite a program that hasn’t made it out of the first round of the NCAA tournament since 2014 and the first weekend of the postseason since 2008. Texas (13-5, 3-3 Big 12) isn’t a juggernaut just yet but it is playing commendable defense.

Mark Adams, Texas Tech. Adams isn’t a novice; the 65-year-old owns more than 500 career victories at the college level, though only 58 of them have come in Division I. Still, he has maintained the Red Raiders’ identity as an elite defensive team, and Texas Tech (14-4, 4-2 Big 12) already owns defeats of Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Tennessee.

A nod to the Pokes

The Big 12, packed with eight credible NCAA tournament contenders while remaining blessed with a double round-robin schedule, remains a league where there is nowhere to hide.

Oklahoma State might have made a run at being a ninth postseason possibility if it didn’t have an NCAA-mandated postseason ban to serve. But the Cowboys (10-7, 3-3) are still doing their part to make life difficult.

In the last two weeks, Oklahoma State has picked off Texas and Texas Christian at home and also won at Baylor. A year after one-and-done star Cade Cunningham propelled the Cowboys to a No. 4 seed, the program is playing even stingier defense than a year ago.

The loss of Cunningham has left Oklahoma State without a galvanizing offensive figure, and it isn’t going to win many league games that get beyond the low 60s despite playing at a solid pace.

But credit is again warranted for fifth-year coach Mike Boynton, who has consistently kept the Cowboys plenty competitive despite the program having an assistant ensnared in the federal bribery and corruption charges that became public in the fall of 2017 — just months after Boynton took over.

Oklahoma State made it through that storm, and there’s every reason to think Boynton and the Cowboys will continue to make noise the rest of this season and beyond.

Six to watch this weekend

No. 14 Michigan State at No. 8 Wisconsin (Friday, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1): The Badgers’ charmed life — seven consecutive victories, all by 10 points or less — has vaulted them into a first-place tie in the Big Ten with Illinois. Lurking just a half-game back is Michigan State (14-3, 5-1), which just saw a nine-game winning streak end with a loss to Northwestern. It’s the first of two meetings; they’ll see each other again Feb. 8 in East Lansing, Mich.

No. 12 Kentucky at No. 2 Auburn (Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS): Game of the year in the SEC? Possibly. The host Tigers (17-1, 6-0 SEC) and stellar freshman Jabari Smith have won 14 in a row, while Oscar Tshiebwe and the Wildcats (15-3, 5-1) are coming off a grind-it-out triumph at Texas A&M. A number to think about: According to KenPom.com, Auburn is blocking 28.2 percent of its opponents’ shots in SEC play to lead the league, while Kentucky has only 8.0 percent of its shots blocked in conference play (the fewest in the league).

Florida State at Miami (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN): Both Sunshine State schools have defeated Duke, and the Seminoles (12-5, 5-2 ACC) also have a home victory over Miami during a five-game winning streak that’s revived their fortunes. The Hurricanes (14-4, 6-1) have old guards and little depth, and they find themselves atop the ACC after several seasons of injury misery. Miami is coming off a 28-point thumping of North Carolina in Coral Gables.

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No. 13 LSU at No. 24 Tennessee (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN): The visiting Tigers have dropped back-to-back games to Arkansas and Alabama after zipping to a 15-1 start, while Tennessee (12-5, 3-3) has alternated losses and victories since beginning SEC play. One of those setbacks was a 12-point loss in Baton Rouge, La., on Jan. 8, when Tari Eason came off the bench to score 24 points for the Tigers. It’s safe to assume bottling up the sophomore forward will be a priority for the Volunteers.

Boise State at San Diego State (Saturday, 9:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network): The last anyone saw of San Diego State, it was clubbing previously unbeaten Colorado State, 79-49, on Jan. 8. Then came a covid pause that cost the Aztecs (10-3, 2-0 Mountain West) two games. They get back on the floor against Boise State (14-4, 5-0), a credible MWC contender that began a stretch of four games in nine days with a win at Utah State on Thursday.

No. 20 Xavier at Marquette (Sunday, 2 p.m., Fox Sports 1): The Golden Eagles (13-6, 5-3) just won at Villanova for the first time since 2012, and they’ll welcome the Musketeers (14-3, 4-2) to Milwaukee. Xavier has been swept by Villanova but hasn’t lost to anyone else since the day before Thanksgiving. It also survived a taut game Wednesday at DePaul. It’ll be curious how both Justin Lewis and Marquette and Paul Scruggs and Xavier respond to their most recent games.

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