Sampson, Huggins have best hope for quick success
So who is going to pull a Bruce Pearl next season?
He took over a mediocre Tennessee program, invigorated the Vols with an uptempo style that emphasized offense (sometimes at the expense of lock-down defense), won big games (at Texas and Florida) and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
There have been eight high-profile hires so far with a ninth -- NC State -- still to come, and the most likely to "pull a Pearl" based on what is returning are Kelvin Sampson at Indiana and Bob Huggins at Kansas State.
First, though, let's address how Pearl managed expectations and pulled off the turnaround in Knoxville.
Off the bat, Buzz Peterson and his staff left Pearl some talent. Pearl arrived from Wisconsin-Milwaukee to find a starting backcourt of Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson, and a stable of frontcourt players in Major Wingate, Andre Patterson and Stanley Asumnu. All seemed to flourish with the newfound offensive freedom.
When Pearl got to Knoxville, he focused on talking about how the Vols were going to play, not about the end result.
"I knew we would score a lot of points, but I wasn't sure how good defensively we would be," Pearl said.
Tennessee averaged 69 points a game under Peterson in his last season and over 80 per outing in Pearl's first season.
"You've got to raise the expectations of your players and manage the expectations of your fans," Pearl said.
Pearl also didn't mind upgrading the schedule. He wanted to play Texas on the road and Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City, and didn't mind continuing the Memphis series with the game in Memphis.
"We lost two of the three," Pearl said. But the Vols got plenty of pop out of winning the one game -- at Texas.
"If you're going to build a national program, then you have to schedule like it," Pearl said. "If we don't win at Texas, then we might not have a chance to make an impact like we did. When you schedule down, you're telling your team that this is as good as I think we are. You're saying we're [only] good enough to handle playing these people."
Sampson has no choice at Indiana. The Hoosiers always play a national schedule. Sampson always would play at least a few big-time games at OU, too.
But, more importantly, he has the best shot of anyone at a new program at taking or keeping it in the NCAA Tournament. D.J. White appears to be staying put, which means the Hoosiers have the best big man in the Big Ten once he's healthy and, even if Robert Vaden bolts to join Mike Davis at UAB, Sampson will have experienced guard play with Earl Calloway, A.J. Ratliff, Roderick Wilmont and Errek Suhr.
Sampson will sell the Hoosier faithful on his team's work ethic and gritty defensive style and they'll have a strong man in the middle in White, so there should be no reason why the Hoosiers won't be an NCAA team under Sampson in his first season in Bloomington.
Huggins' scenario might more resemble Pearl's case. Jim Wooldridge didn't leave him barren -- K-State won 15 games this past season, six in the Big 12, and the Wildcats return nine of their top 10 scorers, including senior wing Cartier Martin (18 ppg). Huggins also already landed a big-time recruit in 7-3 Jason Bennett from Jacksonville, Fla.
Huggins is pursuing a more national schedule, too. The Wildcats will have more national exposure with Huggins on the bench. He will sell his tough style of ball and will likely fill up the arena.
"The fans will come to expect the Bobby Huggins style of basketball of playing hard and being physical at Kansas State, just like at Indiana they'll play Kelvin's style," Pearl said.
So, put it down: Indiana and Kansas State should be dancing next season under their first-year coaches. As for the rest:
Jeff Capel, Oklahoma: The Sooners aren't out of the mix, but there likely is too much rebuilding to be done. Sampson said he anticipated retooling this team with his best recruiting class, but the Sooners lost their frontline in Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout and their top guard in Terrell Everett. Patience in Norman would be good thing, but an NIT berth should be expected.
Mike Davis, UAB: The Blazers won't have 40 minutes of heck or whatever under Davis. Losing leading scorers Marvett McDonald and Demario Eddins (who was out for all but 12 games with an Achilles injury) and the heart and soul of the team in lead guard Squeaky Johnson means a transition period for Davis. The Blazers could have Vaden sitting out and expect Davis to recruit extremely well. UAB should be back in the NCAAs sooner rather than later, but anticipating it in 2007 could be a reach.
Mike Anderson, Missouri: It will take at least a year for Anderson to get his players in top condition to play his style. While Pearl was able to do it in one offseason, Anderson might need two because of the emphasis on pressure defense, too. Also, Missouri doesn't have all the pieces that Pearl had in Knoxville. If Thomas Gardner stays in the draft, Anderson will be without the top two scorers from this season (Jimmy McKinney was a senior). There is plenty of raw talent in place with Marshall Brown, Jason Horton and Kalen Grimes, but these guys need to be in top shape to play Anderson's style. The Big 12 is no joke, either, so it might take another year or two for an NCAA berth.
Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss: Kennedy will get his players to play hard and they will board and defend. But expect a few players to depart here in the spring as Kennedy discovers who wants to play for him. On paper, the Rebels return their top four scorers, but this is from a team that lost 13 of its last 14 games. Kennedy might need a few seasons before an NCAA berth is realistic.
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati: This will be a complete overhaul. The Bearcats are stripped down to just a loin cloth now that freshman point guard Devan Downey is transferring. The Bearcats already were losing five seniors, leaving senior-to-be Cedric McGowan as the lone returning player who scored more than three points a game. (He averaged 8.5 ppg, but hardly is a franchise player). The Bearcats will have to wait and wait maybe three seasons before the NCAA is even a worthy topic.
Herb Sendek, Arizona State: The Sun Devils were in rebuilding mode this past season. If everyone stays under Sendek, the pieces are there for a possible NIT berth but the talent probably isn't deep enough and the system might be too difficult to grasp on short notice for a major move up the Pac-10 standings. The Sun Devils will have experienced guards in Kevin Kruger and Bryson Krueger and a big man in Jeff Pendergraph who could all mesh in Sendek's Princeton-principled system. This team has shooters but still lacks the star power that usually is needed to finish in the top four or five in the Pac-10 and get an NCAA berth. Expect a rise in the number of wins and a postseason berth -- but more likely in the NIT.
TBD, N.C. State: The longer the coaching search drags on, the more likely the Wolfpack will slide. Cedric Simmons is declaring for the draft and could stay in the process as he hears he's likely a first-round pick. Without a coach to woo him back, he'll likely be gone. The Wolfpack already were losing seniors Cameron Bennerman, Ilian Evtimov and Tony Bethel, and who knows what Andrew Brackman will do with his baseball career. This could end up being a complete rebuilding job if Simmons, the team's anchor inside, leaves. An NCAA berth -- regardless of the coach -- could be a reach. The NIT could feel a lot more plausible once everything settles down.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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