First-Year Coaches Competing for Conference Championships

By Kevin Sweeney

Last season, I did research for Jordan Sperber’s Hoop Vision newsletter about coaching hiring trends– essentially studying when a coach needs to stars showing progress before the odds begin to look stacked against them to get it rolling. I found that while exceeding expectations in year one didn’t always lead to long-term success, there are plenty of examples of positive year ones turning into terrific tenures at their programs. Here is a look at some coaches in position to possibly win their conference in their first year on the job.

John Brannen (Cincinnati)

Brannen walked into a better situation than any other coach on this list, but has done a nice job righting the ship after a shaky start to his tenure at Cincinnati. Early apparent chemistry issues (particularly involving star guard Jarron Cumberland) led to bad early-season losses to Bowling Green, Colgate, and Tulane. Since, Cumberland and Brannen have gotten on the same page, and wins have followed in droves. A five-game winning streak that began in mid-January pushed the Bearcats back into the NCAA Tournament picture, and now UC sits just a game behind Houston at the top of the AAC with a showdown between the two clubs looming on March 1.

Geno Ford (Stony Brook)

SBU will need some help from the rest of the conference to catch perennial power Vermont down the stretch, but Ford should be commended for the job he has done keeping things moving in the right direction after Jeff Boals left for Ohio this offseason. Star forward Akwasi Yeboah’s departure to Rutgers didn’t derail things, as athletic wing Elijah Olaniyi has established himself as one of the conference’s premier players in his junior campaign. The Seawolves already knocked off UVM in Burlington this season in an early statement win for Ford’s tenure, and it’s clear that SBU has a shot to go Dancing in year one.

Donnie Jones (Stetson)

No coach on this list deserves more credit on this list than Jones, who took over one of the toughest jobs in the A-Sun and has the Hatters sitting 13-12 with wins over South Carolina and Liberty in his first season at the helm. Stetson hasn’t finished over .500 for a season since the 2000-2001 season! Jones’ top two scorers are freshmen landed late in the process in Rob Perry (16.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Mahamadou Diawara (13.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg). If he can retain those two guys, Jones has a chance to have unprecedented success at a program that has never made the NCAA Tournament. They currently sit a game and a half off the pace in the A-Sun.

Dane Fischer (William & Mary)

Three straight losses have put a damper on what has otherwise been a tremendous year one for Fischer, but the former George Mason assistant has made AD Samantha Huge look smart for her controversial decision to fire Tony Shaver this past offseason. A mass offseason exodus left the cupboard seemingly bare, but star forward Nathan Knight has paired with Wisconsin transfer Andy Van Vliet to create one of the most formidable frontcourts in mid-major basketball. The recent skid has left the Tribe two games back in the loss column in the CAA, but Fischer’s club does have a favorable schedule to close the season.

Darrin Horn (Northern Kentucky)

Horn walked into a good situation left by the aforementioned Brannen at NKU, but he deserves a lot of credit for having this team 18-7– particularly after the injuries the Norse dealt with early in the season. Despite losing two starters in Dantez Walton and Jalen Tate for 10 games each, NKU is well on its way to a fourth consecutive 20-win season and sit just one game behind Wright State at the top of the Horizon League. Horn has a reputation as a strong recruiter and talent developer and should keep this NKU program on an upward trajectory.

Carmen Maciariello (Siena)

Siena sits just a half game out of first place in the jumbled mess that is the MAAC in Maciariello’s first year on the job. The Siena alum was thrown into the fire this past spring when Jamion Christian stunningly left for George Washington, and the first-time head coach has put his own stamp on the Saints. Maciariello’s club has jumped 95 spots in KenPom from last season’s mark thanks to a much-improved offense that tops the conference in adjusted efficiency. Perhaps no league has more parity this season than the MAAC, but Jalen Pickett, Maciariello, and the Saints are as good a bet as any to cut down the nets in Atlantic City in March.

Bryan Mullins (Southern Illinois)

Picked last in the Missouri Valley, SIU sits one game off the league lead in mid-February and the Salukis haven’t lost in close to a month. Mullins deserves an incredible amount of credit for this remarkable turnaround, especially when you consider than the Salukis’ last six wins have come by single digits. Oh yeah, and all this came after losing leading scorer Aaron Cook for the season after just six games. Freshman wing Marcus Domask has been sensational, and Northwestern grad transfer Barret Benson has plugged a massive hole in the frontcourt. Making the NCAA Tournament in year one would be a massive achievement for the former Loyola top assistant, but regardless of what happens the rest of the way the program is clearly headed in the right direction.

Eric Henderson (South Dakota State)

Keeping a program at the top of its league when you lose two of the best players in program history is very tough, but that’s what Henderson has done despite the departures of Mike Daum and David Jenkins along with head coach TJ Otzelberger. JUCO big man Doug Wilson has been a revelation, averaging over 18 points and 6 rebounds per game to lead the way for SDSU. A season-ending showdown in Fargo with NDSU could decide who claims the regular season title.

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