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April 17, 2007

Evaluating the hoops coaching hires

Arguably no sports topic has been hotter for the past month than the coaching carousel in college basketball.

Calling it a carousel seems a bit tame. This has been no children's ride. It darn near has been a carnival thrill ride, and it has made more than a few stomachs queasy along the way.

Did your school get the right guy? Did it get the coach you wanted? Many teams didn't get their first choice. Kentucky made overtures to Florida's Billy Donovan, but he didn't budge. Arkansas courted Billy Gillispie, but he decided to play the waiting game and wound up landing the "Big Blue" plum.

The Razorbacks then hired Dana Altman and held an introductory news conference, only to see him back out a day later and return to Creighton. The coach the Hogs called next and eventually hired was John Pelphrey, who had been the top target of the South Florida search.

Dizzy yet? We'll try to sort through some of it here, as we grade some of the more high-profile coaching hires.

Coaching Report Card

School: Arkansas
Hire: John Pelphrey
Grade: C+

We like Pelphrey and believe he'll be effective in the SEC. He's a Pitino-Donovan disciple with SEC experience as a player and assistant coach. He also put together consecutive 20-win seasons at South Alabama, and that's no small feat. The grade gets knocked down, though, because of the bungle this hire turned out to be from the get-go. It's unacceptable for Arkansas to: 1. Get spurned by the Texas A&M coach when you have the better job; 2. Hire a guy, introduce him and lose him the next day. Pelphrey could turn out to be a great hire, but even Arkansas fans admit this should have been handled better.

School: Colorado
Hire: Jeff Bzdelik
Grade: B-
Bzdelik went 50-16 in two seasons at Air Force. He also had some success as an NBA head coach, albeit briefly. There's no question he can coach, but he also had a style perfect for Air Force. Can he get the Buffaloes to play defense like the Falcons (second nationally in scoring defense)? His teams at the Academy were predicated on hard-nosed defense and 3-point shooting. It's also fair to ask what he'll be able to do on the recruiting front. Recruiting to Air Force is a different animal than battling with the likes of Kansas, Texas and others in the Big 12.

School: Iowa
Hire: Todd Lickliter
Grade: B+
Lickliter might have been the best coach in the mid-major ranks, and you have to love that he beat so many high majors last season. His conservative style and personality should be a good fit in Iowa City as well. The recruiting competition will be a big step up from Butler to the Big Ten, but Lickliter's 2007 Bulldogs class has a four-star prospect and a three-star prospect. Perhaps his biggest recruiting effort will be in talking leading returning scorer Tyler Smith into staying on board.

School: Kansas State
Hire: Frank Martin
Grade: C-
Panicked at the thought of losing Bill Walker and Michael Beasley, the Wildcats turned to one of Bob Huggins' assistants. Martin has never been a head coach at the collegiate level. As a matter of fact, he has been a college assistant only since 2000. What will happen if Walker and Beasley leave after next year? K-State watched Huggins bolt after one year then gave its head job to a guy who came to Manhattan with him. Doesn't exactly scream stability, does it?

School: Kentucky
Hire: Billy Gillispie
Grade: A-
He wasn't the first choice, but he's a good fit in terms of devotion to the game. Much has been made of the fact he breathes basketball 24/7, and you have to in Big Blue Country. He engineered quick turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M, and it wasn't luck. He can recruit and he can coach. But his teams have been known to grind out some games, and that kind of style didn't do much to endear his predecessor to the fan base.

School: Michigan
Hire: John Beilein
Grade: A-
By all accounts the Wolverines had Beilein as their top target from Day One, and they went out and got him. Not many schools on this list can make a similar claim. The guy can flat out coach, and he has an offensive system that not many people have seen. Don't underestimate what a bonus that can be in a league that hasn't seen him regularly. It will be interesting to see what kind of recruiting success he can have in the Detroit area, but he always made the most of his talent pool at West Virginia. What kid won't like the idea of launching a dozen or so 3-pointers every game?

School: Minnesota
Hire: Tubby Smith
Grade: A-
Who would have thought with the schools on this list that the one that would land a guy with a national title on his résumé would have been the Golden Gophers? Minnesota somehow flew under the radar and wound up landing a man who brings instant credibility to the basketball program. Kentucky fans had soured on Smith's recruiting efforts, so it will be interesting to see what kind of prospects he can lure to Minnesota. But his teams will play hard - and they'll win, too.

School: Texas A&M
Hire: Mark Turgeon
Grade: B+
Turgeon should be a great fit in the Big 12. He was born in Kansas, played for the Jayhawks and spent the past seven years as the coach at Wichita State. He led the Shockers to three 20-win seasons and an NCAA Sweet 16 two years ago. He lured a handful of three-star prospects to the Sunflower State, including last year's leading scorer Kyle Wilson. However, can he get the horses you need to compete with Kansas and Texas? With the talent returning, Turgeon could get off to a very big start.

School: West Virginia
Hire: Bob Huggins
Grade: B-
The Mountaineers chose to ignore what Huggins did to Kansas State and instead welcomed back the famous (or is it "infamous?") alum. Yes, he can coach. Unquestionably he can recruit. But at what cost to the university's reputation? How many players who were a fit for Beilein's system will work well under Huggins? How long before he bolts for greener pastures?

Revolving door makes recruits think twice before signing

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