Major programs facing major coaching questions

With conference tournaments already underway around college basketball and a handful of prominent coaching jobs already open, we’re entering the throes of speculation season in college basketball.

What initially projected as a quieter year with both tighter budgets and inherent flaws that come with judging a COVID-19-addled season has flashed the potential to become more active than anticipated.

Here’s a look at the questions that will define the college basketball coaching carousel over the next few weeks.

1. Has Sean Miller coached his last game at Arizona?

This is considered a 50-50 proposition. The confluence of looming NCAA sanctions, pedestrian performance (17-9, 11-9 Pac-12) and a looming decision on Miller’s future with just one year remaining on his contract have created a pressure point. Here are the options: the school is going to decide to fire him, there will be a mutual parting of ways or some type of toothless extension lacking significant guaranteed money that would enable the fifth season of this awkward tap dance. (Predictably, there’s no imminent clarity on the severity of NCAA sanctions in sight.)

Miller’s ability to navigate the self-inflicted mine-field of both the federal investigation and subsequent plodding NCAA investigation have been more impressive than anything the Wildcats have done on the court since 2017. Arizona hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since the federal investigation went public, although it was projected as a No. 5 seed before the 2020 tournament was canceled.

If there weren’t diminishing returns on the court, the argument for Arizona to muscle through another year with Miller may be more prominent. But Arizona’s middling program trajectory and the school’s decision to self-impose an NCAA ban this year are signs the Miller era is sputtering to an unsatisfying finish. We should know better in the next few weeks where that finish line is, as Arizona’s season is already over.

Miller, 52, looks exhausted by it all. Could he expedite his inevitable spin through the NBA — a la Kelvin Sampson — and return to college basketball as a rehabbed commodity? Or does he return and risk facing the NCAA comeuppance that’s long considered an inevitability?

The Athletic has reported five potential Level I NCAA violations in a case that’s currently amid the Independent Accountability Review Process. (That IARP process projects to somehow make NCAA investigations even slower, a nearly impossible feat achieved by the champions of bureaucracy.)

The outcome there is expected to be harsh when it does arrive. The variable will be if Miller is around when the NCAA finally decides.

2. What’s Archie Miller’s status at Indiana?

It’s an uneasy March for the Miller boys, as younger brother Archie is flailing at Indiana with four straight losses and a loud din of dissatisfaction around the state.

The feeling around Indiana is that things are shaky, but there’s yet to be any tangible momentum by the school to fire Archie Miller for his third non-NCAA tournament season in four years. (Indiana appeared on the cusp of reaching the NCAAs last year, projected as a No. 10 seed.)

The buyout of more than $10 million is borderline untenable in normal times and even more awkward amid a pandemic. Can Indiana’s athletic department can pull off paying out that money and rallying the cash for a $30 million contract — and potentially another huge buyout — to lure someone like Chris Beard, Scott Drew, John Beilein, Bobby Hurley or Mick Cronin? Probably not, as that would take sophistication, savvy and some groundwork that no one has seen any signs from in Bloomington. The backchannels are quiet, so far.

The biggest worry for new IU AD Scott Dolson should be that there’s little pathway on the current roster or via committed recruits to obvious improvement. There’s also not a no-brainer replacement, as hiring the caliber of coach Indiana would want is a high-wire act they don’t appear prepared to navigate. (We spoke about this at length on the Yahoo Sports College Podcast this week.)

Look for Archie Miller to be the face of next season’s coaching carousel. (The good news is that was Shaka Smart this season, and he’s saved himself.) Miller’s buyout also dips to nearly $3.5 million next season, which seems much more prudent. Until then, let the jokes about IU as a football school continue.

Former athletic director Fred Glass’ gave this job description before hiring Miller: “The expectations for Indiana University basketball are to perennially contend for and win multiple Big Ten championships, regularly go deep in the NCAA tournament, and win our next national championship — and more after that.”

IU is a long way from that.

3. What’s next for Georgetown and Patrick Ewing?

The difficult part about hiring legends is the potential of parting ways with them. There’s been few tangible signs the Patrick Ewing experiment at Georgetown is poised for any kind of outsized success, as he’s 58-57 and 26-43 in the Big East with no NCAA appearances — either real or projected — or postseason wins in his four seasons.

Don’t expect Georgetown to fire Ewing. This has been a painful year for the school and athletic department, as the death of John Thompson Jr. still lingers over the Georgetown family.

If Ewing decides to return, it’d likely be with staff shake-ups or something to ignite the school’s pedestrian roster. Something needs to change, as Georgetown is bland and Big East coaches are hoping Ewing sticks around.

The Hoyas do have the No. 6 Rivals.com recruiting class coming, which is a life preserver of hope and optimism for a program in need. That includes Rivals.com five-star shooting guard Aminu Mohammed, who is the first five-star to sign with the school since Isaac Copeland in 2014. But it’s going to take more than one strong class to put this hire on the trajectory of Juwan Howard at Michigan. Ewing’s reputation as a recruiter prior to the pandemic was considered apathetic. He needs to reverse that. Fast.

Georgetown hasn’t reached the NCAAs since 2015. The incoming class is the first sign that Ewing can navigate the recruiting world. Could Ewing see that catering to 15-year-olds doesn’t fit his skill set and just scoot back to the NBA?

And that would lead to the larger question of whether Georgetown could hire from outside of its family? Could Ed Cooley, Shaka Smart, Tommy Amaker, Bobby Hurley, Jeff Capel or Mike Boynton revive the lagging brand and on-court product?

Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Villanova, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Villanova, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

4. What’s next for Frank Martin at South Carolina?

This will be the fourth consecutive year for Martin missing the NCAA tournament at South Carolina, and he’s gone just once in his nine seasons there. (He reached the NCAAs four of five seasons at Kansas State.) Martin has twice suffered from COVID-19 during this trying season, making it tricky to grade South Carolina’s 6-13 record.

That lone NCAA trip at South Carolina resulted in a Final Four bid in 2017, which was euphoric and historic. But the euphoria has worn off and that Final Four run is becoming a distant memory, even if it did deliver four of the six NCAA wins in program history. At 4-11 in the SEC, the Gamecocks’ only dollop of relevance this season came when the NCAA hit the program with two years of probation for the actions of former Martin assistant Lamont Evans. (Martin was not named in the findings.)

Martin has always been a popular name bandied around in other searches, and there will be inevitable chatter at New Mexico and DePaul this year. But Martin makes more than $3 million per year, and there are few jobs that pay in that neighborhood that would welcome his performance. (He has two years remaining on his contract and would be owed nearly $6.5 million if fired.)

The uncertain future of South Carolina AD Ray Tanner further muddles Martin’s future, as Tanner isn’t expected to be around close to the nearly three years he has remaining on his deal. South Carolina just hired Shane Beamer in football and linked him with an AD who isn’t expected for the long haul. Can they do the same in basketball?

5. Where are the schools with openings looking?

Wichita State already hired interim coach Isaac Brown, who has the Shockers 13-4 and 9-2 in AAC play.

That leaves Penn State and Boston College with the two most intriguing open jobs on the board, and they have the potential of overlapping pools.

We’ll start with BC, which has decided internally to pay competitively with its ACC peers both in terms of head coach salary and staffing. (BC made similar commitments when hiring Jeff Hafley in football a year ago.)

Down the road, the new athletic administrative regime has made clear that it’s committed to upgrading the practice facilities, which are currently considered the worst in the ACC. BC has planned on a sizable commitment to address that deficiency.

So who comes? The race is wide open, as candidates cast a wide range — St. Bonaventure’s Mark Schmidt, Northeastern’s Bill Coen, Michigan assistant Howard Eisley, UMBC’s Ryan Odom, Vermont’s John Becker and Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry.

Penn State is a bit further along in the search than BC, and their pool is expected to include Schmidt, Odom, Shrewsberry and Dennis Gates of Cleveland State. Gates is the speculative favorite because of his past relationship with Penn State AD Sandy Barbour, as the two overlapped at Cal.

6. Others to watch

There’s a handful of major jobs still in flux:

  • Minnesota — The expectation is that Richard Pitino’s job is in the crosshairs. He’s had bad injury luck this season, but just two NCAA appearances in eight seasons have turned his departure into an expectation. His buyout is less than $2 million.

  • Iowa State — Can Steve Prohm survive his winless Big 12 season? He’s gone 12-20 and 2-19 in back-to-back years, which puts his future in flux. His buyout is significant at nearly $5 million, and the potential of a departure has increased as things have turned hopeless on the court.

  • Kansas State — Don’t expect Kansas State to fire Bruce Weber, but this will be an off-season where some changes on his staff and other aspects of the program could occur. The program needs to change trajectory in a hurry for Weber to stay long-term, but he’s considered safe.

  • Utah — The future of Larry Krystkowiak is an interesting topic, as he’s making $3.75 million per year but hasn’t reached the NCAAs in five seasons. It’s hard to imagine Utah forking over a reported $6.7 million buyout, which means some type of departure agreement would be needed. Would a change do both sides good?

  • DePaul — The only thing consistent about DePaul the past two decades it appearing on lists like this. Dave Leitao is slogging through his sixth season there, as they are 4-13 and 2-13 in Big East play. New AD DeWayne Peevy’s job is to change the narrative of DePaul as the sport’s laughing stock. Could Loyola’s Porter Moser cure the apathy?

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