Five Coaches to Watch in the AAC: Pastner, Brown, Sampson, Haith & Cronin

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 31st, 2014

In the coming week or two, we will be posting as much preview content as possible. We are continuing today with coaches to watch. There is still plenty more to come.

There are only 11 teams in this league so, in theory, you should be able to watch all of them closely without too much difficulty. But what makes coaching such a difficult and unique experience is that no two seasons are alike. Sure, old hats like Jim Boeheim and John Calipari probably know what to expect because they have seen so much in their careers. But even for those guys, every new year presents new challenges, and the same can be said for the coaches of the AAC. Some of this group are dealing with disgruntled fan bases; some are dealing with large rebuilds; and some are trying to replace key players with inexperienced ones. We tried here to choose the five coaches who are dealing with the most interesting problems this year. Bonus points were awarded for coaches who are dealing with more than one problem.

Josh Pastner, Memphis

 Josh Pastner has Memphis in the Third round for the Second Straight Year. (Photo: Spruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports)

This Could Be A Make Or Break Year for Memphis Coach Josh Pastner
(Photo: Spruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s safe to say that the no other coach in the conference has as much going on a national stage than Pastner. The sixth-year coach is not only trying to satisfy a restless fan base by finding some success in the NCAA Tournament, but he is also trying to replace his entire backcourt this season and is of course still trying to reel in what is currently a top-ranked recruiting class for next. It’s tough to say whether Pastner deserves to be on the hot seat after winning at least 24 games in each of his five seasons, but when you flame out early in the NCAA Tournament as often as the Tigers have, the fans are going to grumble. That’s especially true when those fans had gotten used to watching yearly national title contenders under previous head coach John Calipari.

The talk of his job status remains just whispers at this point. But if Pastner can’t deliver another successful season, it will be tough to prevent those hushed conversations from growing louder. The good news is that the cupboard is hardly bare here. The frontcourt is stacked with experience and depth, led by returning starters Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols; throw in some incoming junior college talent as well as rising sophomores Nick King and Kuran Iverson, and Pastner has plenty of options up front. Pastner also got the veteran backcourt presence he so desperately needed when Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson became eligible to play this season.

The last thing that may save his job is that – thanks in no small part to Pastner’s “nothing to see here” assistant coaching hire – the Tigers have some game-changing talent committed to the program. Whoever coaches at Memphis probably won’t struggle to recruit talent, but it’s always nice for job security to basically ensure that the top local kids stay home.

Larry Brown, SMU

Larry Brown has received a bunch of kudos from Internet denizens since taking over as the head coach at SMU, and now he needs to start making good on all of that hype. In fairness to Brown, he deserves much of the praise he has received for rebuilding the Mustangs. The program had finished above .500 just three times from 2002-12, but he led the Mustangs to a 27-10 record in just his second year at the helm. Before his arrival, the program was an afterthought on the college basketball landscape, but now it has become an appealing program to much of the area’s top talent.

Fair or not, however, Brown has created NCAA Tournament expectations for the program that he now needs to fulfill, and this might be his best shot at a deep run. It’s not that the window will close on the Mustangs after this season; it’s more that this season’s team is really deep and experienced. SMU was considered a dark horse candidate by many to make the Final Four when uber-recruit Emmanuel Mudiay was expected on campus, but even without the heralded recruit in tow, the Mustangs should have multiple contenders for all-conference honors and plenty of talented depth to boot.

Now it’s up to Brown to coach this talented group back to the NCAA Tournament. Many pundits have the Mustangs pegged as the conference favorites — even ahead of the defending national champions — so anything less than an NCAA Tournament appearance will be a bitter disappointment for both the team and the fans. Brown has been doing this for decades, so he won’t feel much pressure, but he will still need to coach his tail off to get there.

Kelvin Sampson, Houston

There are only a few coaches in the country that will be as interesting to watch as Houston’s new coach, Kelvin Sampson. In 2007 and 2008, Sampson was one of the most recognized college coaches in the country and he was in charge of one of the most prestigious programs in the entire sport. He made an Elite Eight and Final Four during a highly successful stint at Oklahoma and was just starting to rebuild Indiana into a national powerhouse when scandal struck. You’ve probably heard a few of the jokes about Sampson and his affinity for phone calls, but the penalties from that scandal effectively barred him from the college side of the game for the next five years.

Sampson's Rebuild Took a Hit With the Loss of LJ Rose to Injury

Kelvin Sampson Is Happy To Be Back In The College Ranks But Can He Turn Around The Cougars?

Now he is back, and not a moment too soon, for a once-proud Houston program that has become the definition of mediocrity. His recruiting prowess was put to the test immediately as last season’s top two leading scorers transferred, leaving Sampson scrambling to fill their roster spots. Ultimately he did so and this year’s Cougars have an intriguing blend of young talent as a result. Expectations are low for Sampson in his first season, especially now that point guard L.J. Rose will be out until at least December. But if he can make the Cougars competitive and prove he is still capable of developing talents like Chicken Knowles, Devonta Pollard, and Torian Graham, the program may rebuild quicker than many expect. Although Sampson clearly and knowingly broke a number of recruiting rules at Indiana, it is still nice to have one of the best coaches in the sport back patrolling the sidelines.

Frank Haith, Tulsa

Sampson is probably peeking across the Texas-Oklahoma border and wondering why he didn’t try to get the Tulsa job instead because the Golden Hurricane roster is stacked. Frank Haith’s new team returns nearly everyone from last season’s NCAA Tournament squad, including preseason first-team All-AAC guard James Woodard and a host of other athletic talents who will make Tulsa very tough to defend. There are questions surrounding nearly every team in the conference outside of SMU and UConn, so Tulsa has a chance to really make a statement in its first season in the AAC.

The man in charge of coaching this talented bunch is one of the most polarizing coaches in all of college basketball. In fact, polarizing isn’t even the right word because, aside from athletic directors who keep hiring him, no one seems to think all that highly of his coaching ability. After seven middling seasons at Miami, Missouri somewhat inexplicably hired him to replace Mike Anderson, and he promptly led the Tigers to a school-record 27 regular seasons wins and a Big 12 championship. Alas, that team was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and Haith’s teams got worse in his next two seasons at the helm.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Haith jumped ship unexpectedly and now finds himself in another cushy situation where he has inherited someone else’s talented group. But Haith isn’t fooling anyone anymore. Everyone knows he has been blessed with an excellent team and the magnifying glass will be on him from the start of the season as he tries to prove that he is a worthy coach. If he can maintain the team’s defensive efficiency while improving a shaky offense, Tulsa could be a Sweet Sixteen contender and Haith will be back in people’s good graces again.

Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

Mick Cronin is Doing a Fantastic Job This Season

Mick Cronin Has To Bring His “A” Game To Prevent Regression At Cincinnati

Mick Cronin’s job is absolutely not in jeopardy. The Bearcats are coming off their best season under his leadership and the former Murray State coach has now won at least 22 games in each of his last four seasons. Whereas some coaches have kept their jobs thanks to their recruiting chops, Cronin has built a wall of job security thanks to his super coaching. The Bearcats rarely land the best recruits in the country and they rarely produce lottery picks, yet somehow, they still are always incredibly tough to play and incredibly successful.

Cronin’s coaching ability will really be put to the test this season and the fact that the Bearcats were picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll is as much about respect for Cronin as it is about their belief that the Bearcats are built to win. This team lost its top three scorers from a year ago, including Sean Kilpatrick, who was one of the best two-way players in the country. For a program that has always struggled to score the ball, losing Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson, and Titus Rubles as well as former five-star recruit Jermaine Lawrence hits hard. The incoming recruiting class is full of junior college transfers almost out of necessity, and all are expected to contribute, but none are considered program-changers or all-conference talents and it will be up to Cronin to build a successful team with them anyway.

It’s not that Cincinnati has nothing left over from last season, though. Shaquille Thomas and Troy Caupain are potentially all-conference caliber players and Jermaine Sanders and Ge’Lawn Guyn are quality role players. It is just difficult to envision where the points are going to come from with this group. Cronin is a defensive guy first, and considering the athletes on his roster, the Bearcats will be tough and physical again in protecting the rim. But if Cronin can coax some offensive improvement out of his team, he will have really earned his stripes as one of the league’s best coaches.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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