Surprise! Assessing Early Signs of Life at Providence, Oregon & Iowa StatePosted by rtmsf on December 22nd, 2010
Andrew Murawa is an RTC contributor.
Last week we spent some time praising the work of two of the most familiar faces in the college basketball coaching world, Rick Pitino and Bruce Pearl, in getting their teams off to sparkling starts in the aftermath of some rough off-court patches. Today, I’d like to recognize some perhaps less well-known coaches who have turned awful offseasons of a different sort into solid starts for their respective teams. At Providence, Oregon and Iowa State, the basketball programs all went through turbulent summers full of personnel changes and uncertainty, but thus far the coaches at each of those programs has fought through the adversity to earn a combined 29-9 record for the three schools, albeit against maybe some lesser competition. None of the three schools are necessarily expected to be major contenders for NCAA Tournament berths, but at least they’ve got their programs headed in the right directions after rough offseasons.
For Keno Davis and the Providence Friars, the offseason was an absolute nightmare – not that 2009-10 was all that great to begin with. The Friars lost their last 11 games of last season on the way to a 12-19 record, during which time junior guard Kyle Wright abruptly left the program. After the season was over, a new rash of bad news hit the Friars. First, it was announced that point guard Johnnie Lacy and center Russ Permenter would be transferring out of the program. Then, a couple days later, Lacy and freshman center James Still were charged with felony assault, leading to Still’s eventual dismissal. A month later, the bright spot in the Friar program was extinguished when leading scorer and rebounder Jamine “Greedy” Peterson was kicked off the team. About a week later, assistant coach Pat Skerry left to head to Big East rival Pitt, and in the process, severely hurt Providence’s recruiting with incoming 2010 recruit Joseph Young announcing that he would be staying closer to his Houston home for college. After Davis lost some face in refusing to allow Young out of his scholarship for a time, he was eventually released and allowed to enroll at the University of Houston. Next, 2011 commit Naadir Tharpe announced that he was withdrawing his commitment to the Friars and opening back up his recruitment. And finally, for good measure, Kadeem Batts suffered a disorderly conduct charge in July. In short, it was a miserable offseason.
But, in the face of all of that turmoil, the Friars are off to an 11-2 start to this season. Yes, they’ve dropped games to La Salle and Boston College, and for every win over a Rhode Island and an Alabama, there’s a win over Central Connecticut and Prairie View A&M, but at least Coach Davis has not allowed the negative momentum of the offseason to boil over into a disastrous 2010-11 campaign. Senior wing Marshon Brooks has developed into a versatile threat (22.9 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.5 BPG, 2.0 3PG) and a team leader, while sophomores Vincent Council and Bilal Dixon are each developing into serious Big East-level talents. Council is among the top ten point guards in the nation in assists, with seven per game (he had 16 in a game against Brown), while Dixon has been killing the boards on both ends, to the tune of 9.7 rebounds per night (more than three of those on the offensive glass), and adding almost three blocked shots a night. While much more serious competition awaits the Friars come Big East play, Davis has focused on tightening things up on the defensive end where PC ranked in the bottom 100 teams in Division I last year in defensive efficiency; now PC ranks in the top 100. There is certainly a ways to go for this Friar team, and the talent level is still such that any dream of a run to an upper-division Big East finish should be tempered with, you know, sanity, but Davis has taken what was a disastrous offseason and settled things down in Providence to the point where the program is no longer in freefall and is playing up to their talent level. There are sure to be plenty of losses (and losing streaks) in conference play, but expect the Friars to beat a team or two that they have no business beating, and to be competitive on a regular basis.
Things in Eugene were not a whole lot more settled this offseason than they were in Providence. While the Friars at least had the benefit of stability in the head coaching chair, the Ducks basketball program had no such luck. After deciding to part ways with Ernie Kent in early March, it wasn’t until late April that Oregon decided on Creighton’s Dana Altman as its new head coach, this after failing on wishful runs at guys like Mark Few, Brad Stevens, Jamie Dixon and several others. As Altman arrived, many of the Ducks players departed. Last year’s leading scorer, Tajuan Porter, graduated. Jamil Wilson, Matthew Humphrey, Drew Wiley and Josh Crittle all transferred. In August, Altman was forced to cancel a planned team trip to Italy because the team only had six available players after the defections and a few injuries. Still later, it was announced that Michael Dunigan, who had been the subject of an NCAA “extra benefits” investigation (an issue that still hangs over the Oregon program), would be accepting a professional contract in Israel rather than returning, leaving Oregon with no scholarship player on the roster taller than 6’8. Even point guard Malcolm Armstead flirted with leaving, getting Altman to give him a release from his scholarship before eventually changing his mind and deciding to stay in Eugene.
However, since the struggles of the summer, the Ducks have shown good poise in the face of adversity. While playing a lineup with 6’6 senior forward Joevan Catron (back from a medical redshirt season) ostensibly the center and 6’6 wing E.J. Singler stepping out of his comfort zone to put in some serious work on the glass (including a recent 17-rebound game), the Ducks have been undersized but efficient. With Altman emphasizing a back-to-the-basics approach, Oregon has taken care of the ball and been at least decent on the boards, despite employing one of the smallest teams in the country. Catron and Singler have led the way, getting the Ducks off to a reasonable 7-5 start. A home loss to Idaho on Tuesday night stands out as the worst loss, but Altman’s club played #13 Missouri down to the last possession and knocked off UC Santa Barbara early in the season. But perhaps the best news for Oregon fans is the signing of five-star recruit Jabari Brown in October. While the Ducks still figure to be near the back end of the Pac-10 standings this season, there are at least glimmers of hope for the future of the program after a horrendous offseason. And with the opening of the state-of-the-art Matthew Knight Arena in January, Eugene looks like a highly desirable location for future recruits. Without a doubt, the Ducks hit rock bottom this summer, but under Altman, they’re already beginning to resurface.
At Iowa State, there were many of the same problems over the offseason that the others experienced, and their problems were in part triggered by the Oregon coaching move. When Altman left Creighton to go to Oregon, CU responded by snapping up Iowa State’s head coach, Greg McDermott. The mere thought that a head coach would leave a Big 12 coaching job to take one in the Missouri Valley Conference is enough of a slap in the face for an Iowa State basketball program with big dreams, but to have that happen out of the blue in late April made a bad situation even worse. However, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard made a quick and bold move, announcing the hiring of former Cyclone star Fred Hoiberg as the new head coach despite a complete lack of head coaching experience on his part. Hoiberg, a hometown hero nicknamed “The Mayor” during his time in Ames, stepped into a situation that was less than perfect for any head coach. Last year the Cyclones had expectations of competing for an NCAA Tournament berth, but instead limped home to a 4-12 conference record. In the wake of that disappointment, star forward Craig Brackins announced his intention to leave school a year early and head for the NBA Draft, and with seniors Marquis Gilstrap and Lucca Staiger graduating, the Cyclones were left without last year’s top three scorers. Then, center Justin Hamilton announced he would be transferring out of the program in order to be closer to his home in Utah (he wound up in Baton Rouge, which suggests that either Hamilton did not take Geography 101 at Iowa State or his reasons for leaving Ames had less to do with a desire to be closer to home than with a desire to be away from Ames). Next, guard Dominique Buckley announced his transfer and then point guard Chris Colvin joined Hamilton and Buckley in jumping ship, all before the McDermott decision came down. Following the announcement of Hoiberg as the head coach, three more Cyclone players exited. Would-be senior guard Charles Boozer was arrested for assault the following weekend, and he subsequently announced that he would not be returning to the team for his senior season but instead would be “seeking treatment.” Finally, forward LaRon Dendy announced he would be transferring and guard Antwon Oliver chimed in with the announcement that he would not be returning either.
However, Hoiberg wasted no time feeling sorry for himself and got right to work. First and foremost, he made sure to keep the incoming five-player recruiting class committed to Iowa State, highlighted by 6’6 freshman wing Melvin Ejim ready to provide an immediate upgrade in talent. Second, he was able to draw in three Division I transfers, including Royce White, a highly-regarded prospect from the 2009 recruiting class who ran into trouble at Minnesota and never played a minute there. White applied for a waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility but he was declined and will need to sit out a year, as will Penn State transfer Chris Babb. However, Hoiberg did find one transfer ready to contribute immediately: Darion Anderson, a player from Northern Illinois who took advantage of the NCAA rule allowing players who have completed their undergraduate degree to transfer to a different program without having to sit out a year, and he landed in Hoiberg’s starting lineup.
Like the other schools highlighted here, the Cyclone season isn’t exactly dotted with wins over big-name opponents, but Hoiberg’s squad has a win over in-state rival Iowa under its belt (and we won’t even mention their tough loss at Northern Iowa), as well as a good win over Creighton (which had to be particularly satisfying after the McDermott defection), and a 48-point drubbing of Drake on its way to an 11-2 record. ISU has cut down on turnovers and solidified the defensive end, while senior point guard Diante Garrett has ramped up his production all over the place, with 17.2 points, 5.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game all serious improvements over last year’s numbers. Junior Scott Christopherson has emerged as one of the deadliest shooters in the country, knocking down 3.4 threes per game at a 53% clip, while newcomers Ejim and Anderson both score in double figures (12.7 and 11.3 PPG, respectively) while leading the team in rebounds (8.7 RPG for Anderson, 6.8 RPG for Ejim). Even the most ardent Cyclone fan is not expecting this team to challenge powers like Kansas, Kansas State and Texas for Big 12 supremacy, but again, after the depths of a terrible offseason, Hoiberg has this team surprisingly competitive early and has in effect made the Ames stop on the Big 12 schedule something to pay attention to.
It is not likely that any of these three teams will be on one of the 68 lines when the NCAA Tournament field is announced in March, so it is all the more important that we recognize the successes of these schools now. Each of them will take their lumps when they get to conference play, but the mere fact that these three coaches have their teams playing well and showing improvement should give their fans hope for the future of their programs, a hope which was likely largely absent at the nadirs of the offseason. What’s more, aside from having their teams playing well early in this season, they’ve each started the task of assembling the pieces required for these schools’ future potential successes. They’ll need to keep working to get there, but at least now they are taking steps forward rather than quickly falling behind.