BREAKING: Washington Hires Mike Hopkins From Syracuse

By Kevin Sweeney

Another day, another stunning coaching change.

Jon Rothstein of FanRag Sports is reporting that Syracuse head coach-designate Mike Hopkins will be hired as head coach at Washington. Hopkins, who had already been announced to be the next Syracuse head coach after Jim Boeheim retires after the 2017-18 season, will take his first-ever coaching job somewhere other than Syracuse.

The move is certainly a stunning one, as Hopkins played for the Orange and has been an assistant on Boeheim’s staff since 1996. He coached the Orange for 9 games in the 2015-16 season when Boeheim was suspended as a result of the NCAA investigation that led to a postseason ban in the 2014-15 season. However, Hopkins grew up in Santa Ana, California and was considered a finalist for the Oregon State head coaching job in 2014, so perhaps he has his sights set on returning to the west coast.

Still, one must wonder whether there’s something we don’t know going on in the Syracuse athletic department. It seems odd that Hopkins would leave just one year before landing a superior job. One possibility is that Hopkins didn’t want the pressure of following up one of the top coaches in the history of college basketball, and preferred to pave his own path.

Hopkins will replace Lorenzo Romar, who was fired earlier this week after going 298-195 in 15 seasons in Seattle. This season’s 9-win campaign with potential #1 pick in the NBA Draft Markelle Fultz sealed Romar’s fate. Even with current signee Michael Porter Jr. not likely to attend UW, Hopkins will still have a stacked recruiting class that includes 3 four-star prospects committed. If he can hold on to those players, he should have a chance to win right away.

The move also will bring plenty of attention to what will occur at Syracuse, with Boeheim planning to depart after next season. Boeheim commented earlier this year that he may consider retiring after this season. It’s unclear what effect this will have on his retirement plans. The job will likely be one of the most coveted in the country whenever it eventually opens

Brad Underwood Hired at Illinois

By Kevin Sweeney

We have the first stunning coaching change of the 2017 coaching carousel.

Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood has reportedly accepted the same position at Illinois, according to Jeff Goodman of ESPN. Underwood departs after an incredibly successful season in Stillwater in which he engineered a turnaround from a 20-loss 2015-16 season to a 20 win campaign this season. However, Underwood was one of the lowest-paid coaches in the Power 5 in his only season at OSU, something we certainly won’t be saying now as he will likely receive a massive contract.

To say this hire comes out of left field would be an understatement. I hadn’t even heard a mumbling that Underwood could leave the Cowboys prior to this report. However, he now heads back to an area where he got his first Division 1 coaching job, as Underwood was an assistant at Western Illinois for 11 years.

The Illinois job was expected to receive tons of interest from many top names in the business, but the search appeared to be crippled by Indiana’s firing of Tom Crean, as most would consider Indiana to be a better job than Illinois. That forced the Illinois administration to broaden their search and open up their checkbook, but they wound up landing one of the best coaches in the business.

In Underwood, the Fighting Illini get a fearless winner who has brought energy and NCAA Tournament appearances to wherever he’s coached. He posted an absurd 89-14 record with a pair of NCAA Tournament wins in 3 seasons at Stephen F. Austin before engineering this season’s turnaround at Oklahoma State. His teams play an exciting brand of basketball that includes full-court press on defense and high-scoring offenses.

Oklahoma State now has to find a new head coach for the second straight offseason. If they look to replace Underwood internally, current lead assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Lamont Evans would likely be who the Cowboys look to. Other names to watch during the search could be Middle Tennessee HC Kermit Davis, Wichita State HC Gregg Marshall (if they are willing to break the bank, and OSU alum and TV personality Doug Gottlieb, who has expressed interest in coaching in the past. Current Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams was mentioned last offseason in connection with the opening, but it’s unclear whether he would be interested this time around and would likely also require a very expensive contract.

First Round Exciting, But Why No Upsets?

By Kevin Sweeney

The Round of 64 is now officially complete, and there were plenty of exciting games. That said, in a tournament know for its unpredictability, I was left wanting a few more upsets. There were only 6 seed-line upsets, but the only one of those 6 that was truly surprising was #11 USC knocking off #6 SMU in perhaps the game of the tournament to date. The only mid-major to knock off a power conference club was the widely anticipated 12-5 upset of Middle Tennessee over Minnesota.

So, why the lack of upsets?

For one, it was the lack of top mid-majors in the tournament. Belmont, Monmouth, UT-Arlington, and Valparaiso (pre-Alec Peters injury) were all teams that would have put a real scare into a 4 or 5 seed. However, they all stumbled in their conference tournaments and were replaced by Jacksonville State, Iona, Troy, and Northern Kentucky. While all of those teams acquitted themselves well in their first round matchup, none of them ever had much of a chance to pull an upset. Those conference tournament upsets also lead to the inflation of seeds for teams that may not be as capable of pulling an upset into prime upset position.

Another cause for the lack of upsets was matchups. Even with the upsets in the conference tournaments, there were still plenty of squads capable of shocking the world, especially if they got the right matchup. Unfortunately, most mid-majors drew a team that didn’t match up well with them. UNCW had to take on a Virginia team with a lockdown defense that was able to keep the Seahawks’ dynamic offense at bay. A turnover-prone ETSU team drew Florida, a team adept at forcing turnovers. Bucknell, one of the few mid-majors with great bigs but more average guards, was paired with West Virginia and their pressing system that forced the game up and down. Vermont had no man big enough to handle Caleb Swanigan & Isaac Haas in the paint, opening things up for the Boilermaker guards. Nevada took on a better version of itself in Iowa State. Had some of these mid-majors gotten a more favorable matchup, we could have seen a wild two days.

In game, there were some things I noticed that contributed to the lack of upsets. When trying to pull off an upset, it is essential to get out to a quick start. That’s exactly the opposite of what happened for most mid-majors. Of the 12 games in what I deem “upset territory” (12-5, 13-4, and 14-3 games), just 2 of the lower seeds got off to an early lead. In those 2 games (UNCW/Virginia and NMSU/Baylor), the mid-major conceded that lead before halftime, taking away a lot of the confidence from the underdog. In 5 of those games, the upset-seeker trailed by double-digits early, which makes it much more difficult to attempt a comeback.

Even with tough draws and bad starts, many mid-majors had a chance late to pull the upset, but couldn’t get late bucket or two to fall. Princeton had a pair of great looks for the win in Thursday’s early afternoon tip versus Notre Dame, but neither Steven Cook nor Devin Cannady’s triple would fall, sending the Tigers home in heartbreaking fashion. That was the tightest of the non-upsets, but Nevada, Vermont, Bucknell, Florida Gulf Coast, and UNCW were all right there late. A few bounces one way or another, and we could have had one of the craziest first rounds in tournament history.

Even without all the upsets I was hoping for, it was an outstanding first round with a lot of great basketball played. If we are rewarded with as many competitive and exciting games the rest of the way as we had in the Round of 64, we should be in for an incredible rest of the tournament.

Breaking: Kevin Keatts to NC State

By Kevin Sweeney

Only a little more than 24 hours since his UNC-Wilmington team fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Virginia, Kevin Keatts appears to have a new destination.

Jeff Goodman of ESPN is reporting that NC State has agreed to a deal with Keatts to become the next head coach of the Wolfpack following a highly successful run in Wilmington in which he went 72-28 with 2 NCAA Tournament berths in 3 seasons. Keatts will replace Mark Gottfried, who was fired in February as the Wolfpack endured a disappointing season.

Goodman has since reported that Keatts will receive a six-year deal that will pay him $2.2 million per year. Gottfried was reportedly making approximately $2.5 millionj, according to WNCN in Raleigh.

Ever since the job opened up, Keatts was wrumored to be a candidate. However, the search seemed to increase its focus on Keatts in the last 24-48 hours, as more jobs opened up and UNCW’s season concluded. Things moved quickly from there, as Keatts was reportedly meeting with NC State AD Debbie Yow this morning.

The move is the latest step in a meteoric rise to the top of college basketball for Keatts. After a successful tenure as the head coach at Hargrave Military Academy, a prep school, Keatts took an assistant coaching position at Louisville under Rick Pitino in 2011. After 3 seasons at Louisville, he moved on to UNCW, and is now the head coach in the ACC.

Should the majority of the current roster stay put, Keatts stands to inherit a strong core right away. While Dennis Smith Jr has already entered the NBA Draft, players such as Malik Abu, Markell Johnson, Torin Dorn, Maverick Rowan, and Omer Yurtseven all could return and contribute right away for the Wolfpack.

Now, UNCW has to fill a void as it looks to continue its run atop the CAA. They could look to hire from within, but have a very young staff behind Keatts. External candidates could include a pair of UNCW alums in Georgia Southern HC Mark Byington and Michigan assistant & former Wright State head coach Billy Donlon. Other candidates could include UNC-Asheville head coach Nick McDevitt, NC Central head coach LeVelle Moton, and even former Seahawks head coach Brad Brownell, who is currently on the hot seat at Clemson.

First Four Primer: Previewing a Quartet of Intriguing Games In Dayton

By Kevin Sweeney

Contrary to what some believe, the First Four is more than just a chance to find TruTV before the Round of 64 begins on Thursday.

The First Four has been one of my favorite events of the college basketball season since its inception in 2011. The games are played at UD Arena in Dayton, which is always loaded with fans both Tuesday and Wednesday. The matchups are usually juicy, with 2 games of teams who fought until the end to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, along with a pair of games pitting conference champions with either poor records or coming from weak conferences. Here’s a preview of the 4 games that will kick off the NCAA Tournament this weekend:

#16 New Orleans vs #16 Mount St. Mary’s (Tuesday, 6:40 pm)

This game pits a pair of teams that won both their regular season and conference tournament titles. New Orleans out of the Southland was picked 9th in the preseason, but came out of nowhere to punch their first-ever ticket to the Big Dance. The Privateers are a veteran squad that starts 3 seniors and 2 juniors and are led by Southland Conference Player of the Year Erik Thomas, a senior JUCO transfer who averages nearly 20 points per game. They’ve lost just 3 games by more than 10 points all season, to a trio of tournament teams in Oklahoma State, USC, and Northwestern, so expect them to be in the game from start to finish.

However, they face stiff competition in the form of Mount St. Mary’s, a much younger team that hails from the Northeast Conference. Their top 6 scorers have eligibility remaining after this season, led by sophomore shooting guard Elijah Long and junior point guard Junior Robinson, who stands just 5-5. Under head coach and former VCU assistant Jamion Christian, the Mountaineers deploy a pressing defense that forces almost 15 turnovers per game. New Orleans also likes to press, so this one should come down to which team takes care of the ball better.

My pick: Mount St. Mary’s 74, New Orleans 67

#11 Wake Forest vs #11 Kansas State (Tuesday, 9:10 pm)

These teams each had to go through the excruciating wait on Selection Sunday to see if they would sneak into the NCAA Tournament. Wake Forest seemed to hang on the fringes of bubble consideration throughout the season due to a brutal schedule, but lacked the big wins to sit on the right side of the bubble. That all changed on March 1, when they knocked off Louisville behind 25 points from sophomore sensation John Collins, who has parlayed his outstanding season into first round draft status. That win, combined with a regular season-ending win over Virginia Tech and avoiding a letdown in the first round of the ACC Tournament allowed the Demon Deacons to hear their name called for the first time since 2010.

Kansas State appeared dead when it lost by 30 to a bad Oklahoma team to wrap up a stretch of 8 losses in 10 games. But Bruce Weber’s team stunned Baylor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament and all the sudden found their way back into bubble contention. Many questioned their inclusion in the tournament considering their weak non-conference schedule, but wins over West Virginia, Baylor (2x) and Oklahoma State were enough for the Wildcats to warrant a bid. In my mind, the game comes down to the matchup between Collins and K-State big man DJ Johnson. Johnson must stay out of foul trouble and not allow Collins to go off. If he can, the Wildcats should advance to take on SMU

My Pick: Wake Forest 78, Kansas State 68

#16 UC Davis vs #16 North Carolina Central (Wednesday, 6:40 pm)

Head coach Jim Les has led a turnaround this season for UC Davis that has included doubling the team’s win total from a season ago. That turnaround has been rewarded with the program’s first-ever Division 1 NCAA Tournament berth and was embodied by beating UC Irvine, a team that had beaten them by 30 just a few games before, to punch their ticket. They are led by senior guard Brynton Lemar, a dynamic scorer who averaged over 20 points per game during the conference tournament, and big man Chima Moneke, who has thrived in his first season playing with the Aggies after redshirting his first season following a stop at junior college. However, they’ll face a stiff test from MEAC champs NC Central, who feature one of the best mid-major guards in the country in Patrick Cole. Cole, who is on his third D1 school, was named MEAC POY after 19.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game. The Eagles faced adversity late in the season after a pair of puzzling losses to close the regular season, but they dominated in the conference tournament to earn their 2nd NCAA Tournament under 8th year head coach LeVelle Moton.

My Pick: NC Central 83, UC Davis 69

#11 USC vs #11 Providence (Wednesday, 9:10 pm)

The final game of the First Four is a rematch of one of the best games of last season’s NCAA Tournament. If you don’t remember, the Friars won the game in the final seconds on a lay-up by Rodney Bullock.

However, this is a much different Providence team than the one from a year ago. Without Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, the Friars look to Bullock and Kyron Cartwright for much of the offense. To reach the NCAA Tournament in what was expected to be a rebuilding year says a lot about the program that Ed Cooley has built. This team won’t just be content to reach the Big Dance. They are looking to make a deep run, and if they play the way they did down the stretch, it’s certainly possible. On the other side is a USC team that started 14-0 but stumbled to a 10-9 finish and limped into the NCAA Tournament. Their resume was likely boosted by an early season win over SMU, a team that struggled early before finishing 30-4, and a win over UCLA when the Bruins were struggling. Nevertheless, the Trojans hope they can win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

My Pick: Providence 71, USC 69

 

 

Seattle Fires Cameron Dollar

By Kevin Sweeney

Today was supposed to be a quiet day without college basketball.

It has been anything but that.

The coaching carousel continued to spin Monday afternoon, as Jon Rothstein of FanRag Sports is reporting that Cameron Dollar has been fired from his post as the head coach at Seattle University. Dollar finishes his tenure at Seattle with a 107-138 record, but will be remembered for helping lead the transition from Division 2 back to Division 1. Dollar is the only coach since the school’s retransition to Division 1.

Before Seattle, Dollar was an assistant at Washington under Lorenzo Romar. He brought the Redhawks onto the national scene with wins over Utah and Oregon State in his first season en route to Seattle becoming the first program to ever record a .500+ winning percentage in its first season of Division 1 play. He also led Seattle to a pair of College Basketball Invitational Tournaments in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons. However, Seattle struggled this season to a 13-17 mark and a 6th place finish in the WAC, likely leading to his departure.

While Seattle lacks the recent success of other mid-major vacancies, the position still has its advantages. For one, the Redhawks play many of their home games in KeyArena, the former home of the Seattle SuperSonics.

There a few candidates that come to mind immediately when I consider this vacancy. One would be current Boise State assistant John Rillie. Rillie has helped lead Boise State to the top of the Mountain West despite being new to the conference, and has deep ties to the Pacific Northwest. Another candidate could be Tim LaComb, the current associate head coach at BYU. One wild card would be Brandon Roy. Roy, a former NBA star for the Portland Trail Blazers who saw his career get derailed by injuries, is now a highly successful high school coach. He’s young, a great basketball mind, and would energize the program. However, he’s not nearly qualified, so it remains to be seen whether he would even be considered for the vacancy.

Other candidates that have been mentioned in connection with the position are former Portland State and Washington State head coach Ken Bone, as well as former Stanford, LSU, & TCU head man Trent Johnson. Both of those guys would be more than qualified for the position, but might be a little old to want to build a program basically from the ground up.

Dollar certainly isn’t finished in the coaching business. At just 41 years old with a good reputation in the business, he’ll likely have a multitude of options for next season and beyond. It’s possible he could go back to Washington or some other Power 5 school as an assistant, or he could seek out another head coaching position somewhere else.

BREAKING: Grant McCasland To Be Next Head Coach at North Texas

By Kevin Sweeney

For the second year in a row, an up-and-coming Sun Belt head coach has departed after just one season. 

Jon Rothstein of FanRag Sports is reporting that North Texas will hire Arkansas State head coach Grant McCasland to the same position. He will replace Tony Benford, who was fired after going 62-95 in 5 seasons with the Mean Green. 

The 40-year old McCasland guided the Red Wolves to a 20-12 mark in his only season in Jonesboro, revitalizing a program that hadn’t won 20 games since the 1997-98 season. He also guided his team to a win at Georgetown, one of the biggest upsets of November. Before his tenure at Arkansas State, he was an assistant under Scott Drew at Baylor for 5 seasons and was also a highly successful head coach at the Division 2 and NJCAA levels with Midwestern State and Midland College. 

To get a guy like McCasland, well-regarded as a good young coach, seems like a dynamite hire for North Texas. The Mean Green have struggled since joining Conference USA from the Sun Belt before the 2013-14 season. If McCasland can bring the same type of energy and excitement to UNT that he did at ASU, where attendance grew significantly in his short tenure, he will certainly be on the right track toward bringing the Mean Green to C-USA success. 

There have been no details of McCasland’s contract released so far. Scout.com reports that he made $350,000 as a base salary at Arkansas St, so he will likely receive at least 500k per season at North Texas, though that is just speculation on my part. 

Arkansas State now will look for a new coach for the second offseason in a row. They could look internally to associate head coach Ross Hodge, a highly-regarded recruiter who has also been an assistant at Colorado State and Southern Miss. An internal hire would provide some continuity for a program coming off a strong campaign. However, if they look elsewhere, there will certainly be interest from high-major assistants in the Midwest.