There are a lot of people out there floating a lot of names for the Washington State Cougars’ men’s basketball coaching vacancy. Some of those names are pie-in-the-sky prospects (Thad Matta); others are the typical west coast guys who have had some modicum of success at midmajors (Leon Rice and Travis DeCuire); still others are once-hot-commodities-turned-reclamation-projects who might be just desperate enough to take the WSU job (Mark Fox).
Anyone can give you those names. Here at the search firm of POWERS and NUSSER, we specialize in identifying candidates who don’t immediately jump to the front of mind, but who might be an excellent fit for the specific needs of a particular program — like, say, a program that needs to find a creative way to maximize talent because we know it can’t win traditional recruiting battles.
WSU athletics director Pat Chun even gave us some marching orders:
“The most important thing for me is when you look at the history of our place, whether it’s George Raveling, Dick and Tony Bennett, Mike Price ... and currently Mike Leach, Jen Greeny, Todd Schulenberger — our coaches that have been the most successful here have a belief system of what their program needs to look like, and a conviction that no matter what the adversity comes, no matter what the world is telling you, we are going to do it our way and we’re going to be happy with the results. But we are not going to blink, and we are not going to waver, because this is how we do things.”
WSU president Kirk Schulz was even a little more specific when Cougfan.com caught up with him at Wednesday’s “Cougs First” event in Seattle:
Schulz says the next basketball coach at Washington State doesn’t have “to look just likes the Bennetts” but will run a system — similar to how Mike Leach has built his Air Raid football team — “that fits the type of student-athlete we’re going to get in Pullman.” ...
“We’re going to look for a coach that has a system … that is going to work for Pullman.”
Based on that historical precedent that Chun and Schulz rightly say they’re looking for, here’s a short list of coaches they should be calling.
Note to Pat and Kirk: If you like what you see, we work for beer. I mean, it needs to be GOOD beer, but beer will be sufficient for services rendered.
Prairie View A&M Panthers head coach
Experience: 3 seasons; 57-57 overall, 39-15 Southwestern Athletic Conference
NCAA Tournament: 2019/16 seed
Kenpom: High — 218 (2019); Low — 313 (2017); Average — 267
Why he’d be a fit for WSU: First of all, if you’re not much of a college basketball fan, it’s hard to overstate what Smith has accomplished at Prairie View A&M. The SWAC is annually one of the two worst conferences in Division I, with nearly all of its teams usually ranking in the 300s on kenpom.com. The teams are usually doomed to terrible overall records as they go on a parade of payday games during the non-conference slate so that their cash-strapped programs can pay the bills. (More on that in a sec.) And yet, Smith has a career winning record — the only PVAMU coach to ever achieve that. (Next closest to his .500 mark is his predecessor Byron Rimm ... at .375.) The Panthers have improved every year under him, ranking 313th in his first year, jumping to 269th last year, and ranking 218th this year after finishing 17-1 in conference — and winning the SWAC tournament to advance to the First Four. This is the best season in PVAMU’s relatively brief Division I history.
Working on the premise that the Cougars need to do something unique to compete for players, Smith brings the goods: The Panthers are second in the country in defensive turnover percentage, a statistic they’ve ranked highly in every year under Smith. They also get after shooters, chasing them off the three-point line (only 36 percent 3PA/FGA) and holding opponents to 31 percent from deep. They take care of the ball themselves, they offensive rebound like crazy — despite their biggest player being 6-7/205 — and they get to the line a ton. And they play hard. How’s this for resiliency: Prairie View started the season with 12 consecutive away games, yet despite going 1-11, the Panthers came back to win 21 of their next 22 games before a rough second half in the First Four sent them crashing out of the NCAA tournament.
Vermont Catamounts head coach
Experience: 8 seasons; 193-84 overall, 107-21 America East Conference
NCAA tournament: 2019/13 seed, 2017/13, 2012/16
Kenpom: High — 63 (2017); Low — 151 (2016); Average — 103
Why he’d be a fit for WSU: The America East typically features a top team that would rank somewhere around 150 on KenPom.com, with most teams falling in the bottom 50ish (300s) of the rankings. For three years in a row, the Vermont Catamounts have landed in the top 100 at year’s end. That’s certainly a feat within itself, but Becker reached that point through changing his offensive philosophy and widening his recruiting reach.
UVM (that’s University of Vermont shorthand, it references the school’s Latin name - Universitas Viridis Montis) was a top-tier team in the America East before Becker took the job, and they continued to be in his first few years. But by switching to a ball-screen motion offense and looking beyond New England for recruits, he’s made a program that can compete beyond its own conference. That’s how you go from a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2012, to a more respectable 13-seed in 2017 and 2019.
That recruiting is especially what makes him a fit for WSU. We’ve talked about how a Cougar coach needs a system, and needs to be able to uncover talent that others aren’t finding. Vermont features players from the Midwest, Canada, and even Cameroon, to go along with those from adjacent states in the Northeast. Becker has a keen eye for what he wants; a few years ago, when he had a couple of unexpected transfers that left holes that needed to be filled, he approached it this way:
“One thing I didn’t want to do and one thing I tried to stay true to is not taking guys for the sake of taking them. Making sure they were the right guys, from a character standpoint, from an academic standpoint, from a talent standpoint. We stayed patient and ended up with Josh (Hearlihy) and Payton (Henson) and then added (Anthony) Lamb.”
Lamb, by the way, was this season’s America East player of the year — as a junior.
Beyond that, Becker’s teams rebound well on the defensive end and limit turnovers on the offensive end. They are well-coached, and Becker has shown his ability to adapt to improve the UVM program. Those are qualities that would be great for WSU.
San Antonio Spurs assistant coach
Experience: None in college
NCAA tournament: N/A
Why she’d be a fit for WSU: You want to be different? This is about as different as it gets, seeing as how no Division I basketball program has ever been led by a woman. This seems like a glass ceiling that’s ready to be shattered, and Hammon is the perfect person to do it. Following an illustrious playing career in the WNBA and abroad, she’s spent the last five years under the tutelage of one of the great coaches in NBA history, Gregg Popovich. Here’s his endorsement of her latest promotion:
She knows her stuff. She’s confident. The he-she thing doesn’t fit at all. She’s a coach, and just happens to be a she. That’s it. If it was a he, and more qualified, I would have hired a he. But this she was qualified, and that’s who I wanted.
I’ve been in the NBA for 17 years. I’ve won two championships … I’ve played with some of the best players of this generation … and I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.
Kelvin Sampson has talked about how his time around the NBA game improved his coaching immensely and contributed to his resurgence with the Houston Cougars; we’d wager that Hammon would be much more than a novelty hire and coach circles around Ernie Kent — and a number of other coaches around the Pac-12. We also suspect her NBA ties would allow her to recruit to WSU as well as any man could. And if you’re looking for commitment to a way of doing things? Well, you can’t get any better than Popovich and the Spurs for that.
We think the only real question is whether she’s holding out for an NBA job.
UC Irvine Anteaters head coach
Experience: 9 seasons; 187-127 overall, 98-48 Big West Conference
NCAA tournament: 2019/13 seed, 2015/13
Kenpom: High — 75 (2019); Low — 249 (2012); Average — 138
Why he’d be a fit for WSU: OK, OK ... Turner’s name is showing up on a fair number of lists. But consider this a case for why he might be different than some of the other reasonably successful midmajor candidates. A guy like DeCuire is doing at Montana what pretty much all Montana coaches do. But when someone wins at a place where nobody has ever won? That’s always a good place to start, and that’s Turner: He led the Anteaters to their first and only two NCAA tournaments, and not just as a 15 or 16 seed.
Second, Turner’s teams play incredible defense. In the last six seasons, they’ve not ranked below 82nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, including a pair of top 50 finishes. And get this — here’s where the Anteaters have ranked in 2-point defense over that time: 1st, 4th, 6th, 4th, 16th, 1st. Tired of watching the Cougars give up layup after layup? That’s going to change immediately. They also don’t allow a ton of 3s and the 3s they do allow don’t go in very often, so this is how they’ve finished recently in effective field goal percentage defense: 5th, 5th, 6th, 9th, 22nd, 2nd, 21st.
Here’s what will probably hook you: We don’t know exactly what kind of defense Turner runs, as we didn’t exactly sit down to watch a bunch of UC-Irvine games this season, but we will say that the statistical profile looks suspiciously like a pack line.
He also has had some success recruiting internationally — the two best players on his 2015 team that secured a 13 seed were from the UK and Senegal, and also featured contributions from players from Greece and Lithuania.
Saint Louis Billikens head coach
Experience: 19 seasons; 330-275 overall, 147-173 conference record at Eastern Kentucky (5 seasons), UMass (3), Oklahoma State (8), Saint Louis (3)
NCAA tournament: 2019/13 seed (Saint Louis); 2015/9, 2014/9, 2013/5, 2010/7, 2009/8 (Oklahoma State); 2005/15 (Eastern Kentucky)
Kenpom: High — 21 (2014 at Oklahoma State); Low — 295 (2002 at Eastern Kentucky); Average — 125
Why he’d be a fit for WSU: Ford meets most anyone’s definition of a retread, having been fired at Oklahoma State just a few years ago. And his career losing record in conference — particularly the 63-75 mark in the Big 12 while at Oklahoma State — makes you wonder what the ceiling might be with Ford at the helm. Hiring Ford isn’t going to fire anyone up.
But here’s the thing: When Ford takes over a struggling program, it gets a lot better within a few years. Observe the improvement in the kenpom.com rankings of his teams. Year 0 is the year before he arrived:
Travis Ford’s Coaching Career
|School||Year 0||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||Year 5|
|School||Year 0||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||Year 5|
A deep dive on the internet didn’t turn up any details of his contract, but we’d be pretty surprised if WSU couldn’t beat what he’s currently making. And after three years, the buyout ought to either be small or even nonexistent. You’d be hard pressed to get a more experienced guy with a better track record of turning around marginal programs, and it’s hard to imagine other high major programs offering him another shot at a gig in a power conference.
Georgia Bulldogs assistant coach
Experience: 16 seasons; 235-240 overall, 122-126 conference record at Air Force (4 seasons), Princeton (3), Denver (9)
NCAA tournament: 2004/11 seed (Air Force)
Kenpom: High — 36 (2004 at Air Force); Low — 269 (2007 at Princeton); Average — 174
Why he’d be a fit for WSU: While these other candidates generally lean defense, Scott’s known for his offense — the Princeton offense. It’s harder to find inefficiencies in the offensive player market, but that’s exactly what this is designed to do: It’s about disciplined, tough, smart players running similar actions over and over and over until the defense lets down its guard for a split second and then BOOM backdoor layup, or some other kind of easy-ish shot.
Scott’s overall record doesn’t look great, but the peaks he achieved at both Air Force and Denver were unprecedented in the programs’ histories. When it’s working at its peak, the Princeton offense is a thing of beauty — nobody will ever forget 1996. Scott was an assistant with the Tigers under Pete Carrill on that team. That said, the one major conference experiment with a Princeton coach didn’t work out so great; Bill Carmody, another Carrill disciple, was only able to produce some middling results at Northwestern, never making it to the NCAA tournament. And maybe the Princeton offense is passé. But maybe Scott has picked up a few wrinkles since he’s been on other peoples’ benches.
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