By Kevin Sweeney
Every year, it feels like a few first-year head coaches shock us with their ability to win big in their first year with their new program. Taking over for a fired coach at the mid-major level is difficult– the number of immediately-eligible impact players likely to commit to mid-majors in April is very low. That makes it that much more impressive what the six coaches below have done so far– uncover some underrecruited stars or make big systematic changes while developing inherited talent.
Justin Hutson (Fresno State)
Record: 12-3 (3-0 MWC)
Big Wins: Northwestern, Cal, @ Utah State
Hutson has made Bullldog fans forget about losing Rodney Terry pretty quickly and is off to a terrific start to his first career head-coaching gig. With a roster lacking size but loaded with guard talent, Hutson has implemented a spread offense that puts his playmakers in positions to succeed, and guards Deshon Taylor, Braxton, Huggins, and New Williams have all thrived. Hutson has also aided in the breakout junior season of 6-8 Nate Grimes, who has established himself a strong inside presence on both ends. With a NET of 63 and a KenPom of 59, it’s not out of the question that the Bulldogs could steal an at-large bid with a couple bigs in MWC play.
Darian DeVries (Drake)
Record (12-4, 1-2 MVC)
Big Wins: New Mexico State, San Diego
The fourth coach in the last 3 seasons for Drake, DeVries has done a magnificent job in year one. The former Creighton assistant brought in a pair of key grad transfers in Nick Norton (UAB) and Brady Ellingson (Iowa) along with JUCO and prep recruits to rebuild quickly after inheriting a roster that lost five of its top six scorers this offseason. The Bulldogs appeared in position to contend for a conference title, but those hopes were likely dashed when Norton tore his ACL in the team’s MVC opener. Still, you have to love the direction this program is headed in long-term, and a 20-win year for the first time since the Keno Davis 28-5 season in 2007-08 is more than attainable.
Dusty May (FAU)
Record: 10-5 (1-1 CUSA)
Big Wins: @ UCF, @ Illinois
Like DeVries, some of the luster of this year has been lost by recent injuries, as May has lost star 4-man Jailyn Ingram and talented freshman wing Jaylen Sebree to season-ending injuries, while grad transfer Xavian Stapleton has also missed time but is expected back soon. Those injuries haven’t stopped May’s group from pulling some big upsets in the non-conference season over UCF and Illinois, and the Owls are well on track for their best-ever finish in Conference USA.
Craig Smith (Utah State)
Record: 11-5 (1-2 MWC)
Big Wins: Saint Mary’s
My friends over at Three Man Weave did an awesome job breaking down the X’s and O’s of why Smith’s Utah State team has been so good this season, so I will keep it short in that area. Smith made a game-changing August addition in Portuguese big man Neemias Queta who has made a huge impact, especially on the defensive end. Combine Queta’s interior presence with Sam Merrill’s ability to get buckets, and you have something special on your hands. Smith made a living off uncovering hidden gems with great success at South Dakota, and it appears he’s already found one in Queta. If he finds a couple more, he’ll have this Utah State program rocking and rolling for a long time.
Griff Aldrich (Longwood)
Record: 10-6 (0-1 Big South)
Big Wins: @ Richmond
Longwood’s combined D1 record in the 14 seasons before Griff Aldrich arrived in Farmville? 130-312.
Griff Aldrich’s record so far at Longwood? 10-6.
That’s impressive no matter how you slice it, especially he wasn’t a college coach until 2016 when he joined Ryan Odom’s UMBC staff as Director of Basketball Operations. The Lancers rely heavily on the 3-point shot, taking move than half of their shots this season from downtown. With three excellent veteran guards in Isaiah Walton, Lorenzo Phillips, and JaShaun Smith, this team can compete with anyone in the Big South.
Walter McCarty (Evansville)
Record: 8-8 (2-1 MVC)
Big Wins: Ball State, Loyola-Chicago
Few doubted McCarty would get this Evansville program going when he landed Kansas transfer Sam Cunliffe during his first summer as head coach. I just didn’t expect it to happen this fast.
After returning just 3 players who averaged more than 2.8 points per game last season, McCarty has worked his magic to get this team to .500. The Aces have implemented a pro-style offense emphasizing spacing, with dynamic wing KJ Riley (14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.2 apg) the primary beneficiary. Once McCarty gets his guys into his system, watch out.