By Kevin Sweeney
First, we ranked all 14 high-major coaching hires. Now, we get down to business with the mid-major hires, ranking all 40. This was much more difficult than the high-major landscape, mostly due to more internal hires, less concrete information on who else was considered, and variance in level of program from good Mountain West jobs paying over a million dollars a year to MEAC jobs with little to no financial resources.
As I mentioned before the high-majors segment, the methodology here is based on how good a hire the school realistically could have made rather than simply how good the coach is. This is why a guy like Steve Alford can be behind a guy like Scott Cross– it’s based on the circumstances around the hire. I tend to look at hires based on regional and school fit, recruiting prowess, coaching acumen, and experience. I also cooked in a bit of what the coach has already done so far: retaining players, recruiting wins, staff hires.
That said, let’s get down to business.
#1. Belmont (Casey Alexander)– This hire was always expected, but kudos to Belmont for getting it done after Rick Byrd retired. Alexander checks every possible box– regional fit, history of success, alum, and an excellent recruiter. He inherits an excellent young core despite graduating Dylan Windler and should crush it while staying in Nashville.
#2. Northern Kentucky (Darrin Horn)– Another perfect hire. Horn has the ideal pedigree for a one-bid-league hire: prior D1 success, regional connections, high-major experience, and an appealing style of play. Horn won big at Western Kentucky before floundering at South Carolina, but working on Shaka Smart’s staff at Texas has rebuilt his stock and his recent work recruiting and developing Jaxson Hayes should not be overlooked. NKU is a job with high potential and they got the perfect man for the job.
#3. George Washington (Jamion Christian)– Christian is a rising star in this business. After a pair of NCAA Tournament bids at Mount St. Mary’s, Christian took on the Siena rebuild and in one year doubled their win total, made the Saints a MAAC contender, and landed an NBA prospect in Jalen Pickett. He’s an engaging guy and a smart offensive mind, and a move back to the DMV should only help him on the recruiting trail. I don’t know what the ceiling for the GW job is, but they did about as well as they could have in landing Christian.
#4. BYU (Mark Pope)– The year-over-year improvement brought on by Pope at UVU was extremely impressive, making Pope the clear favorite at BYU when Dave Rose stepped down. Pope is an excellent recruiter, using the transfer market in particular to great success in Orem. After retaining Yoeli Childs and bringing Jake Toolson with him, Pope has a chance to win big early in Provo.
#5. Troy (Scott Cross)– Some mid-major was going to get a steal this cycle in Cross, whose firing at UT-Arlington despite winning 72 games in his final three seasons remains a travesty. After a year on the TCU staff, Cross makes his return to the head seat at Troy, a job without much history of success. Cross’s teams have always played fast and been tough, and those qualities should allow him to get things rolling quickly for the Trojans.
#6. Nevada (Steve Alford)– Landing a coach who has dominated your league in the past always seems like a win, and Nevada did just that in hiring Alford, whose time in the Cherry and Silver at New Mexico went very, very well. His tenure at UCLA was less convincing, but Alford and sidekick Craig “Noodles” Neal have had plenty of success in the past landing under-the-radar gems in the Mountain West. The biggest concern I have is the contract– a backloaded 10-year deal that could be tough for Nevada to get out of if things go south.
#7. Mercer (Greg Gary)– Mercer went the high-major assistant route in replacing Bob Hoffman and absolutely crushed it by hiring Gary. Matt Painter’s right-hand-man in West Lafayette is a great offensive mind and player developer, and Gary has hit the ground running on the recruiting trail thus far. The SoCon had its best season in recent memory last season, and hiring coaches like Gary will only continue that momentum.
#8. Appalachian State (Dustin Kerns)– Dustin Kerns just won 20 games at Presbyterian. Presbyterian. One of the hardest jobs in the country. He won 20 games in year 2! It’s hard to explain how impressive that is, and App State was smart to snatch him up before someone else did.
#9. Kennesaw State (Amir Abdur-Rahim)– Some around the college basketball world have mentioned Kennesaw State to me as a sleeping giant, and they took the first step towards reaching some of that potential in hiring an excellent recruiter with high-major pedigree in Abdur-Rahim. He’s incredibly well-respected in the talent-rich state of Georgia, and if he can convince some solid in-state kids to stay home he’ll have a ton of success quickly.
#10. UNLV (TJ Otzelberger)– A tough job to evaluate given how many differing opinions are out there on how good a job this is. UNLV paid Otzelberger handsomely, and he should bring a style of play that is welcomed in Vegas. He has a good reputation as a recruiter and met expectations at South Dakota State after inheriting Mike Daum. Still, I just want to see a bit more from Otzelberger before I’m all in despite some early recruiting wins.
#11. Georgia State (Rob Lanier)– 14 years since his last D1 head job, Rob Lanier gets a second shot at things after years of being one of the better recruiters in the country. He’ll do so at a very good mid-major job in Georgia State where he should be able to recruit plenty of talent both from the transfer market and the prep circuit. We’ll see how much he has learned from working under Rick Barnes after struggling on the X & O side of things at Siena back in the day.
#12. Elon (Mike Schrage)– I had heard nothing but good things about Schrage during his time at Ohio State and Stanford as an assistant, and those reviews have been proven right thus far based on his strong recruiting start at Elon. Three freshmen and two transfers later, Schrage has found a way to inject some much-needed talent into this Elon roster for the short and long terms, and with a new arena to sell to recruits more wins on the trail should be on the way.
#13. Ohio (Jeff Boals)– Boals was always the favorite to replace Saul Phillips at Ohio given his history with the program, but a strong year at Stony Brook this past season secured that. Boals did a nice job picking up where Steve Pikiell left off at Stony Brook, and getting back to a place where he has significant recruiting connections should bode well for the future of the Ohio program.
#14. UMKC (Billy Donlon)– This is a tough job, make no mistakes. UMKC’s conference affiliation and lack of recent success makes it very difficult to lure recruits. They made a strong hire though in Donlon, a defensive whiz who was fired unfairly at Wright State before making an impact on the staffs of both John Beilein and Chris Collins at Michigan and Northwestern, respectively. This is a complete rebuild, but Donlon was as good a name as UMKC could have pulled.
#15. Siena (Carmen Maciariello)– The highest-rated of the internal hires, Siena didn’t have to do much thinking when it came to naming Maciariello the job when Jamion Christian left suddenly. An alum of the program with deep ties to the region and to the Albany City Rocks AAU program, Maciariello is a hard-working recruiter who fittingly gets his first head gig at his alma mater. Early returns have been strong, retaining Siena’s entire talented young core headlined by Jalen Pickett and winning a recruiting battle with multiple high-majors for California wing Gary Harris.
#16. Southern Illinois (Bryan Mullins)– Being around the Loyola program the last two years, all I’ve ever heard is how important Bryan Mullins was to that entire operation. Mullins understands where SIU fans want this program to be, and now he’ll be tasked with turning things around at a program starved to get back to the NCAA Tournament after a 12-year absence.
#17. Fairfield (Jay Young)– Young deserved the Stony Brook job several years ago when Steve Pikiell left for Rutgers, and now he finally gets the chance to run his own program after being key in the Rutgers rebuild. Young is virtually the opposite of Sydney Johnson, a hard-nosed, disciplined defensive mind who will look to grind his way to wins compared to Johnson’s 3-point heavy, defense-often-optional style.
#18. Stetson (Donnie Jones)– Jones fell off after a strong start at UCF, but after three years as an assistant he’s back in the head coaching ranks at Stetson. For a difficult A-Sun job like this, pulling a name like Jones is a big win, and he has answered the bell early with some nice recruiting wins.
#19. Morgan State (Kevin Broaddus)– Broaddus is a better recruiter with a far better resume than most incoming MEAC coaches in this day and age, most recently serving as the primary player-getter for Mark Turgeon at Maryland. A black cloud still hangs over him from his time at Binghamton, but his recruiting prowess in the DMV should get him plenty of talent from day 1.
#20. Mississippi Valley State (Lindsey Hunter)– Hunter was an amazing hire for MVSU and no one is talking about it (shocking, I know). I have no idea if Hunter will win at MVSU, but landing a guy from Mississippi who understands the SWAC and has played and coached in the NBA seems like a home run. Hire a JUCO head coach who can get players in the region and you’re cooking.
#21. Idaho State (Ryan Looney)– Looney has won big at the D2 and NAIA levels, coached an NBA prospect in Daulton Hommes, and is from the Pacific Northwest. He’s a winner who understands how to get it done at a difficult job, which will be necessary given Jeff Goodman’s Chain of Command series rated ISU as by far the worst job in the Big Sky.
#22. Stony Brook (Geno Ford)– Despite a disastrous run at Bradley, Ford definitely deserved another crack at a head coaching gig given his success at Kent State and at the non-D1 level. Hiring from within with Ford gave Stony Brook the best chance to retain Elijah Olaniyi, Miles Latimer, and the rest of their young core.
#23. North Dakota (Paul Sather)– UND went to the non-D1 well to replace Brian Jones and made an incredibly logical hire in Sather, who has won over 75% of his games in the last 5 years at Northern State in South Dakota. Understanding how to recruit in the region will be key, and Sather certainly has that knowledge. He should do well for the Fighting Hawks.
#24. Howard (Kenneth Blakeney)– This hire makes a lot of sense. Blakeney is from DC, went to Dematha Catholic (one of the best HS programs in the country), played at Duke, and has coached at multiple Ivy League spots. Those experiences should prepare him well for Howard, which has higher academic standards than the rest of the conference but has name recognition that allows them to recruit against mid-major programs.
#25. Utah Valley (Mark Madsen)– Hiring “Mad Dog” Madsen is an interesting choice for a UVU program that could have elected to hire from within or potentially hired Dave Rice, who was reported to be in the mix. In the end, Madsen’s LDS connections and NBA pedigree won out. We’ll see how he recruits to Orem.
#26. Presbyterian (Quinton Ferrell)– After nailing the Dustin Kerns hire, Presbyterian went for a similar mold in Ferrell, an established top assistant at a regional mid-major. Being an alum sealed the deal here. As I mentioned with Kerns’ hire at Appalachian State, this is an absolutely brutal job, and losing Adam Flagler to Baylor really hurts.
#27. San Francisco (Todd Golden)– USF moved quick to promote Golden after Kyle Smith took the Washington State job, making the 33-year-old one of the nation’s youngest head coaches. Look for him to continue the “nerdball” theme from Smith at USF, though having to replace Frankie Ferrari will be a difficult first task.
#28. Wofford (Jay McAuley)– McAuley’s extensive experience in the SoCon and ability to maintain the culture from last season’s historic run made him an attractive candidate for Wofford. McAuley kept the roster together for the most part despite losing Keve Aluma to the transfer portal. Personally, I’d have shot higher given how high the stock the job has now compared to in the past, but there’s no reason McAuley can’t succeed in Spartanburg.
#29. Tennessee Tech (John Pelphrey)– The pedigree Pelphrey has, between being a star at Kentucky, working under Eddie Sutton and Billy Donovan, and having been a high-major HC, is impressive for a job of Tennessee Tech’s stature. However, I always worry about the adjustment of recruiting on private planes with official visits during football weekends to selling kids on coming to Cookeville, TN to bus around the OVC.
#30. South Dakota State (Eric Henderson)– Unlike last time, when SDSU went with a high-major assistant in TJ Otzelberger to replace Scott Nagy, the Jackrabbits elected to hire from within with Henderson. He’s excellent in developing talent and has experience in the prep ranks, but I would have chased the same mold as Otzelberger– a young, high-level recruiter. Failing to retain David Jenkins wasn’t the best first step, either.
#31. Cal Poly (John Smith)– A highly successful JUCO head coach, Smith gets a crack at the D1 ranks from being the associate head coach at Cal State Fullerton. Knowledge of the JUCO ranks should serve him well at perhaps the most difficult Big West job.
#32. Buffalo (Jim Whitesell)– This hire felt uninspiring coming off the best run in program history, especially given Whitesell’s history at Loyola-Chicago. If internal was the route Mark Alnutt wanted to go, I would have hired Bryan Hodgson, an elite recruiter who was responsible for landing the vast majority of the young Buffalo core. I will say I have been impressed with the talent Whitesell has been able to land so far in his first few months at UB, but I remain skeptical in the long-term.
#33. Montana State (Danny Sprinkle)– MSU took the “bring back the native son” approach with Sprinkle, who most recently worked with Smith under Dedrique Taylor at Cal State Fullerton. He has been well-regarded for his recruiting ability, but we’ll see if he is ready to run his own program.
#34. Lipscomb (Lennie Acuff)– This hire came mostly out of left field, as the 54-year-old Acuff left his long-tenured post at Alabama-Huntsville for his first-ever D1 coaching job. People have raved about his basketball mind, but it’s a hard sell for me to go with a guy who has never recruited at the Division 1 level.
#35. St. Joe’s (Billy Lange)– I understood firing Phil Martelli more than most did–St. Joe’s expects consistent A10 relevance and Martelli had fallen off– but you have to have a clear plan for a strong replacement if you are going to move on from a legend. Lange, who was 92-115 at Navy in his only D1 head coaching stint. His familiarity with Philadelphia basketball, ties to Jay Wright, and NBA background made him a “sexy” hire for St. Joe’s, but he wouldn’t have been my choice.
#36. Southeastern Louisiana (David Kiefer)– Kiefer was the internal hire made late in the game after Jay Ladner left for Southern Miss. This one isn’t sexy, but if he can continue to develop talent the way he did with guards like Marlain Veal, Kiefer could keep SLU in the mix in the Southland.
#37. William & Mary (Dane Fischer)– This is as much about the firing as it is the hire. Samantha Huge wanted to shoot higher than Tony Shaver as W&M looks for its elusive first NCAA Tournament appearance, but if you are going to move on from a tenured head coach with a strong returning core, you better have a name lined up to replace him. W&M didn’t, and the long delay caused several transfers out of the program, including Justin Pierce (North Carolina), Chase Audige (Northwestern), and Matt Milon (UCF). Fischer is a grinder who was deserving of an opportunity somewhere soon, but he doesn’t represent the slam dunk hire that would have been needed to justify throwing away this elite core’s final year together.
#38. SIU-Edwardsville (Brian Barone)– Promoting from within without a full search from a program that has lost 20 games or more in each of the past four seasons seems like a less-than-ideal endeavor. Barone is a good young coach, but he’ll have his hands full at a very, very tough job.
#39. Southern Miss (Jay Ladner)– Having to replace Doc Sadler after he helped rebuild the program was a brutal blow for USM. Ladner is an alum of the program, but was under .500 in five years at SLU. Given the other finalist was Texas Tech assistant and defensive genius Mark Adams, Ladner feels like a slightly underwhelming choice.
#40. Maryland-Eastern Shore (Jason Crafton)– Didn’t really get this one. Hiring a guy with no MEAC experience and little D1 experience as a whole seems like a mistake at a tough job like UMES. JUCO ties would have been a smart angle.