5 burning questions in an unparalleled college basketball coaching carousel

NEW YORK – From the moment FBI agents busted into the homes of 10 men on the morning of Sept. 26, the federal investigation into basketball corruption changed the college basketball landscape. And now that the major conference tournaments are starting around the country, the impact of the scandal has cast itself over the coaching carousel.

The biggest mystery hovering over the sport right now is what happens to schools like Auburn, Arizona and USC that have been in the crosshairs of the scandal. Louisville fired Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino in the aftermath of the initial flurry of arrests and criminal complaints. Few high-profile coaching changes are expected this year for a variety of reasons, including the uncertainty of the landscape.

Auburn, Arizona and USC all had assistant coaches arrested in the scandal. All three of the coaches face upcoming federal trials, and the information dug up in discovery could potentially include more damaging material to those programs.

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Don’t expect those schools to make decisions on their coaches on a traditional timeline that mirrors the season. After all, they are all one pre-trial motion, damaging wiretap or flipped assistant coach away from potentially having to make a move. They could move after the season, or they could continue to let the scandal play out.

The coaching situations at Michigan State and Connecticut don’t have the specter of federal investigations hanging over them. They do have thorny situations that could result in non-traditional timing of coaching departures. Could this finally be the year Tom Izzo goes to the NBA? The tumult on campus at Michigan State could nudge him there, as Izzo has enjoyed the attention that comes with NBA flirtations over the years but has never been able to pull the trigger on leaving MSU.

UConn’s uncertainty comes from the NCAA investigation into Kevin Ollie’s program. There are $10 million reasons that they won’t fire him, especially at a school that doesn’t have any significant football revenue. Could the NCAA give the university cause to fire Ollie without penalty? Don’t be surprised if UConn’s administration waits to find out.

Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie during the second half an NCAA college basketball game. (AP)

1) What does Louisville do next?

There’s virtually no chance that interim Louisville coach David Padgett will save his job. And his most likely replacement is playing across the river from the ACC tournament over in Manhattan this weekend. Chris Mack, the coach of Big East champion Xavier, has the caliber of team that can go on a long NCAA tournament run. The longer they go, the more awkward and obvious it will be that he’s a top Louisville target. Don’t be surprised if UCLA’s Steve Alford lobbies behind the scenes, or names like Purdue’s Matt Painter, Florida’s Mike White or Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall pop up. But there’s no mystery about Mack’s favored status here.

2) What’s the reality at Memphis?

Memphis-based college basketball reporter Gary Parrish tossed a bombshell out on Tuesday night that Memphis is “seriously considering” firing Tubby Smith and replacing him with Penny Hardaway. The report added the juicy detail that Penny has actively started putting together a staff, and would target veteran coach Larry Brown as an assistant. (Don’t expect that to happen.) The Memphis president, Dr. David Rudd, fanned the flames by giving Smith the dreaded “evaluate the program at the end of the year” status update, according to the Commercial-Appeal.

Could this work? Well, history says former stars tend to flop. Clyde Drexler did famously at Houston. Ollie worked out at UConn, until he didn’t. Chris Mullin is flailing at St. John’s. And Patrick Ewing has gotten off to a tepid start at Georgetown.

What makes Hardaway different is that he has far more recruiting ties than the others. Parrish mentions ties to three top-40 players he could likely lure to Memphis from coaching AAU. But Hardaway is a risk, and it’s exacerbated by needing to pay Smith $10 million to leave.
This feels like an American Idol hire more than the move of a strong and stable administration. And it also feels like it’s going to happen.

3) What’s the most intriguing subplot of the coaching carousel?

The race for Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley will be fascinating. Pittsburgh should have the jump on landing him, as they reportedly parted ways with Kevin Stallings on Thursday. UConn is certainly interested, but it has its own fiscal issues in the short term (see above) and the long term. Count on Hurley to seek greener pastures – ACC teams make upwards of $20 million more annually than AAC teams.

Pitt’s best teams under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon had a strong toe-hold in the Northeast, which makes Hurley a natural leading candidate there.

4) What’s next for the SEC schools?

In a quiet year for turnover around the college basketball landscape, the SEC may have the most intrigue. Ole Miss is already open, and there’s an aura of mystery around what the Rebels can do. Their NCAA issues from the Hugh Freeze era may keep them from top regional candidates like Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis and ETSU’s Steve Forbes. (Each has NCAA ghosts.)

Ole Miss will be watching Auburn and also need to have their eye on Georgia. The Bulldogs will decide on Mark Fox in the upcoming days, and an opening here feels inevitable. The Bulldogs are the quintessential test case for this uncertain era in college sports. Do they keep Fox, who has a strong reputation but modest results with just two NCAA appearances in nine seasons? Do they risk hiring with so much unknown swirling around the environment? The bet here is they move on Fox and make a safe hire of a veteran coach, with Tom Crean’s name the biggest buzz.

5) What’s next at Washington State?

Right now, nothing is happening. Bill Moos’ parting gift to Washington State is a mind-bendingly bad contract for Ernie Kent, whose tenure in Pullman has been predictably brutal. No one other than Moos would have rescued Kent with a Power Five job, and no one else would have kept rolling his contract over as he sputtered through a 47-76 tenure where he hasn’t even sniffed .500.

Washington State would owe Kent $5.6 million if they fired him, but the current fiscal state of the university makes that unlikely. (With a new athletic director, Pat Chun, it would be an ideal time for change.) As of now, the expectation is for Kent to return to Washington State. And it’s reasonable to expect Washington State to return to losing again next year.

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