Second-year coaches — who’s ascending, who’s stagnating

The preseason focus on coaches typically centers around the fresh and new — first-year head coaches — and the almost done — the dreaded hot seat. But what about second-year head coaches? Generally, a program has to show some signs of progress by the end of Year 2 or the questions on job status begin in Year 3. So it’s time for a pre-Year 2 report card for the second-year head coaches in the major conferences; which coaches have their program on the upswing, what challenges lie ahead and which coaches are already stagnating?

Penny Hardaway, Memphis Tigers

There’s not a coach in the country entering the season with more hype than Hardaway, and not a program in the country entering the season with more buzz than Memphis. The Tigers bring in the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class, the first school to break the Duke-Kentucky hegemony at the top of the class rankings since 2012, led by James Wiseman, the nation’s No. 1 incoming freshman. Hardaway has done nothing to quell the preseason adulation, even telling The Athletic recently: “We’re going to win a national championship.”

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Hardaway was hired to bring the buzz back to Memphis, get the Tigers recruiting five-star prospects again and keep the best players in the area home for college. He has done all that — but it’s now time for the next step. He has to win.

Memphis showed flashes last season, and although they didn’t make the NCAA tournament, it’s clear Hardaway has an identity for his team. The Tigers played fast, they were aggressive defensively and they stayed in attack mode. Now that Hardaway has upgraded the personnel on his roster, that identity mixed with talent should yield results. There’s a lot of hype, but Memphis has the pieces to live up to it.

Chris Mack, Louisville Cardinals

While Memphis has more preseason hype, Mack has his team in the best position to make a run at a Final Four in Year 2. The Cardinals are a consensus top-10 team in the preseason, battling with Duke, North Carolina and Virginia at the top of the ACC. Taking over a scandal-scarred program last season, Mack and Louisville got off to a 16-5 start overall, 7-1 in the ACC. Things fell off after that, but with five players back who started 11 or more games and a top-10 recruiting class that includes four ESPN 100 prospects, there’s plenty of optimism for the Cards.

“We probably didn’t have enough ammunition to go through 30-something games and maybe finish off the season the way we would’ve liked,” Mack said. “And hopefully that leaves a bitter taste in our mouth; I know it does mine. And then to return the majority of our scoring and rebounding, and hopefully guys that can lend that experience …

“When you add six new freshmen, you have an excitement as a coach. You also have those head-scratching moments, like what is this guy thinking? Being able to be the same guy day-to-day is tough for a freshman. Having 13 guys on scholarship, being as deep as we are, compared to a year ago, is a luxury.”

Mack will have to navigate a couple of injury issues; David Johnson and Malik Williams are both expected to miss the start of the season. But provided the newfound depth can help overcome their absences for a few weeks, Mack has Louisville positioned to make a deep run this season.

Dan Hurley, UConn Huskies

Hurley’s tenure will get an immediate jolt next season when UConn returns to the Big East, where it had an enormous amount of success under Jim Calhoun. But before then, the Huskies have one final season in the American Athletic Conference — but it’s unlikely they will be competing for a conference title as a farewell.

UConn finished tied for ninth in Hurley’s first season at the helm, but it’s clear the Huskies are bringing in more talent than in Kevin Ollie’s final couple of years. Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight were both ESPN 100 recruits in the backcourt, while Akok Akok was a top-50 recruit before enrolling at UConn early. Hurley also already landed ESPN 100 prospect Andre Jackson for the 2020 class.

Hurley’s calling card in the past has been his team’s improvement in his first three years. At Wagner, he went from 13-17 in his first season to 25-6 and 15-3 in the Northeast Conference. It’s hard to foresee UConn making that sort of leap in Year 2. But at Rhode Island, it was 8-21 to 14-18 and then 23-10 in Year 3. That seems more likely for what Hurley will do with the Huskies. They will undoubtedly be improved this season, but they’re poised to make a big jump in Year 3 — their first season back in the Big East.

Travis Steele, Xavier Musketeers

Steele was thrust into the starring role two springs ago, when Chris Mack left for Louisville. Xavier promoted Steele to replace his boss, and as a first-year head coach, there were some growing pains. The Musketeers lost three of their first five games of the season and were up and down until a six-game losing streak in January and February dropped them to 11-13. But they won six of seven to end the regular season and have momentum entering the new season.

That momentum has helped Xavier garner a number of preseason top-25 rankings, as the Musketeers bring back four stalwarts in Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin. They also bring in a top-25 recruiting class and two graduate transfers. This team is more talented, more experienced and deeper than a season ago.

“I think we’ll have to be able to manage egos,” Steele said. “I think we’re more talented than we were last year. But our guys are going to have to be willing to sacrifice in order to win. We’re deeper. So maybe all of a sudden Naji Marshall isn’t playing 36 minutes a night; he may go down to 32. Instead of 14 shots, it’s 11. Are guys willing to sacrifice for one another to win? I think that’s a huge thing. We are deeper — but sometimes that’s a blessing and a sacrifice.

“Guys are going at each other in a good way. Iron sharpens iron, it makes us better — last year we were just trying to get through the year without an injury. We were one injury away from being completely done. It makes those guys better.”

Steele has already gotten a jump start on 2020, with a top-10 recruiting class as it stands. But on the court, he also has Xavier ready to get back to the NCAA tournament in Year 2.

Tom Crean, Georgia Bulldogs

It wasn’t a banner season in Athens in Crean’s first go-round, but Georgia also hit some bad luck. During their nine-game losing streak in January and February, the Bulldogs had a four-game stretch in which they lost by a combined nine points. They were 2-11 in games decided by 10 or fewer points, 1-7 in games decided by single digits. So in order to improve, Crean’s team will have to be on the right side of variance.

But while Hardaway reeling in the No. 1 recruiting class at Memphis has generated plenty of attention, Crean landing the No. 5 recruiting class in his first full cycle at Georgia has flown a bit under the radar. The Bulldogs are not considered a lock to make the NCAA tournament, which should allow the freshmen to get their feet wet without a microscope on them. Potential No. 1 NBA draft pick Anthony Edwards is the headliner, but Christian Brown, Jaykwon Walton and Sahvir Wheeler were all ESPN 100 prospects as well.

The SEC is going to be wide-open this season outside of Kentucky and Florida, with a very large middle of the pack pushing to make the NCAA tournament. Georgia should be in that pack.

Kermit Davis, Ole Miss Rebels

Davis won 24 or more games in six of his final seven seasons at Middle Tennessee, going to three NCAA tournaments and losing three or fewer conference games in five of his last seven seasons. How would that translate to the SEC? Turns out, pretty well.

The Rebels saw an eight-win improvement and got back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015, despite a disappointing end to the season (23-point loss to Oklahoma after losing five of seven heading into the NCAA tournament). There’s a chance Ole Miss is better this season, too. The Rebels aren’t getting any love in preseason rankings, but they do bring back four of their top six and add multiple recruits who should improve the team’s depth and athleticism.

Much like Georgia, Ole Miss is a team that should be in that second-tier group of the SEC that should be in NCAA tournament consideration for much of the season. One of only two coaches on this list who made the NCAA tournament in his first season at his new locale, Davis should make it two-for-two.

Jeff Capel, Pittsburgh Panthers

Capel took over a mess when he left Duke for Pittsburgh two springs ago. Essentially the entire team was in the transfer portal and the Panthers were coming off an 0-18 ACC campaign under Kevin Stallings in 2018. But there were signs of promise in Capel’s first season, despite a 12-game losing streak during ACC play. Prior to that stretch, they were 12-5 overall and 2-2 in the league — including wins over Louisville and Florida State.

A year older and more comfortable, the Panthers’ roster has been overhauled since Capel took over. And he’s now hoping for some consistency from his group.

“I thought we had a lot of growth as a program, from when I took over to where we were at that moment. You have to figure out, how do you sustain it?” Capel said. “That’s the thing you admire about the really good programs that are consistently good, because it’s hard to sustain. For us, we did hit a wall. We had no one on our team that had success in college. Our freshmen didn’t have an upperclassman to look to.”

Like Crean and Georgia, Capel and Pittsburgh really struggled in close games, going 2-7 in ACC games decided by single digits — a sign of a young team. That’s the next step for the Panthers.

“We were right there. What we have to do is figure out how to win those games,” he said. “Can you get one stop, can you string together two or three stops in a row, can you get a rebound, can you not turn it over, can you make a shot, can you make a free throw — in those situations? And that’s where you hope the maturity and the growth, guys that were in those moments, get over the hump with that.”

Joe Dooley, East Carolina Pirates

Dooley can scoff at the rebuilds attempted annually by Duke and Kentucky, who bring in a handful of five-star prospects to replace departed first-round picks. This season, Dooley is going to attempt one of the bigger — if not the biggest — rebuilds in the country. East Carolina is bringing in 11 new players and has only two returnees: Jayden Gardner (16.3 PPG) and Seth LeDay (11.0 PPG).

Attempting such an overhaul might not be the worst thing in the world for the Pirates, who have yet to win more than six conference games since 2013, when Jeff Lebo was at the controls and East Carolina was in Conference USA. They beat two AAC teams last season, knocking off Tulane twice and upsetting Cincinnati.

It’s difficult to truly assess how good East Carolina or Dooley will be in Year 2. There are six junior college transfers among the 11 newcomers, so there will be some experience on the roster, but the Pirates are a complete unknown right now.

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