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Evaluating Recent Coaching Hires And The Meaning Of Coin Flips

How a Failed Inbounds Play Can Change Everything

In today’s column, I look at which recent coaching hires have been able to improve their team’s performance. But I want to point out that getting better on the court isn’t everything. Tom Crean is a poster-child for efficiency margin improvements. From 2009 to 2013, he improved Indiana’s margin-of-victory numbers every year. Last year he brought Indiana its first outright Big Ten Title in 20 years, and he did it in a year in which the Big Ten was considered to be the toughest conference in the nation. That was also good enough for Indiana’s first 1-seed in the NCAA tournament in 20 years. And while the Hoosiers lost in the Sweet Sixteen, anything can happen in a one-game elimination format. Meanwhile, Crean has upgraded Indiana’s recruiting, and that means the team should never again hit rock-bottom like it did when he first took over.

But Indiana lost virtually all its scoring from last season. And youth, combined with the team’s lack of outside shooters, has been devastating to this year’s offense. Future NBA first round pick Noah Vonleh is a great team player, but with opponents sagging off so many Indiana shooters, the Hoosiers often can’t even get Vonleh a touch in the paint.

(Vonleh is also total team player who doesn’t force shots. My favorite statistic is that Vonleh is 13 of 24 from three-point range right now. While he has shown he can make wide open threes, he refuses to become Baylor’s Isaiah Austin and just jack up perimeter shots to get his points. Vonleh continues to run the team’s offense and hope it will produce points.)

This year the Hoosiers got hot enough to beat Wisconsin and Michigan at home, but they’ve also lost to each of the six worst teams in the Big Ten. And suddenly, within the last week, Indiana fans have begun to turn on Tom Crean. The message boards are lighting up with fans vehemently expressing their frustration.

This isn’t about a fanbase with unrealistic expectations. Objectively, given the Hoosier’s scoring difficulties and the team’s incredible youth, even ravenous Indiana fans could forgive the losses and look forward to next year. This is a fanbase that once sold out the arena and channeled its positive energy for a 6-25 team. This is a fanbase that in a recent season rushed the court after beating a Minnesota team that hadn’t had a winning record in the Big Ten since 2005. Hoosiers faithful have shown they will support every team, as long as they believe in the plan.

But that’s the thing about evaluating coaches. It doesn’t just come down to wins and losses. It doesn’t always come down to per-possession performance. It often comes down to selling the fans that the team has a plan that works.

John Calipari’s focus on one-and-done athletes isn’t perfect. It often results in young teams like the one he has this year. But when you listen to him on College Gameday, explaining how a school needs elite athletes to be in the hunt for a national title every year, most Kentucky faithful are willing to buy what he is selling. Where Billy Gillispie couldn’t sell a bottle of water to a thirsty man in the desert, John Calipari has 1.25 million twitter followers. The Gameday crew speculated that this is more than every other D1 head coach combined.

And at Indiana, Tom Crean has been the master salesman. But right now Indiana fans are starting to doubt the plan. Last year in the NCAA tournament, Indiana didn’t just lose to Syracuse, they looked like they had no idea how to attack a zone defense. Then on Wednesday, Indiana failed on multiple occasions to inbound the ball, blew an 11 point lead with under 3 minutes left in the game, and lost at home to Penn St. Finally, state-rival Purdue, a team with its own issues with young players and inconsistent offense, absolutely crushed the Hoosiers on Saturday. Fans can forgive losses. But when they start to believe their team is less prepared than the opposition, the coach is officially on the hot seat.

Logically, one setback season shouldn’t mean that Tom Crean is a bad coach. But that’s why a failed inbounds play and a blown home lead can be so devastating. The attitude of the fans matters. The opinion that Tom Crean’s players are unprepared matters. It filters down to recruiting. It filters down to donations. And in the end, Tom Crean is at a crossroads. With four Top 20 teams left on the schedule, the season could spiral out of control. Or maybe, just maybe, Tom Crean will get enough out of his players, to remind Indiana fans that his blueprint works.

Efficiency Margins for Recent Hires

Each table below shows how a team’s efficiency margin (opponent adjusted offense minus defense) has changed between the previous head coaches and the current head coach.

First Year Coaches

Former Coach

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

New Coach

2014

Texas Tech

Pat Knight/Billy Gillispie/Chris Walker

8

10

4

-7

-6

Tubby Smith

10

UCLA

Ben Howland

22

4

12

11

13

Steve Alford

21

Northwestern

Bill Carmody

11

8

13

10

3

Chris Collins

4

Minnesota

Tubby Smith

14

15

11

12

17

Richard Pitino

15

USC

Tim Floyd/Kevin O'Neill/Bob Cantu

17

8

11

-7

5

Andy Enfield

2

New Mexico

Steve Alford

14

13

14

17

17

Craig Neal

13

Rutgers

Fred Hill/Mike Rice

0

1

9

5

5

Eddie Jordan

-2

Butler

Brad Stevens

14

21

15

5

14

B. Miller

5

Quiz question: In 2013-14, which first year coach on a high profile team has caused the biggest improvement in margin-of-victory? The answer is Tubby Smith.

Ironically, Tubby Smith perfectly fits the situation I was describing in the introduction. He eventually lost his job at Minnesota, not because he couldn’t get his teams to play quality basketball. He lost his job because the fanbase no longer believed in his plan.

Now if you want to doubt Tubby Smith’s turnaround this year, it is fair to emphasize that Texas Tech hit rock-bottom with the recent coaching carousel. Most power conference coaches could have improved on the numbers Texas Tech put up last season. But don’t take this initial improvement for granted. Even in his fourth season, Oliver Purnell has not been able to take that first step at DePaul.

Second Year Coaches

Former Coach

2009

2010

2011

2012

New Coach

2013

2014

SMU

Matt Doherty

-4

1

0

-4

Larry Brown

-2

17

Nebraska

Doc Sadler

10

8

10

1

Tim Miles

3

11

LSU

Trent Johnson

13

-3

-7

6

Johnny Jones

6

9

S. Carolina

Darrin Horn

9

7

1

0

Frank Martin

-4

3

Connecticut

Jim Calhoun

26

12

23

13

Kevin Ollie

12

18

Illinois

Bruce Weber

16

12

18

7

John Groce

14

7

Saint Louis

Rick Majerus

1

7

2

19

Jim Crews

18

18

Kansas St.

Frank Martin

12

23

16

16

Bruce Weber

18

14

TCU

Jim Christian

2

-2

-2

0

Trent Johnson

-9

-4

Colorado St.

Tim Miles

-2

2

8

7

Larry Eustachy

17

3

Virginia Tech

S. Greenberg

11

14

13

6

J. Johnson

0

-2

Mississippi St.

Rick Stansbury

10

13

4

8

Rick Ray

-7

-5

I think it says a lot about how far SMU has come this season that the team lost at Temple on Sunday and it actually felt like a real upset. But let’s not focus on that one game; let’s focus on how far SMU has come this year.

SMU returned a number of starters, but as I articulated last week, even with most players back, we should not have expected this type of rapid improvement. Moreover, SMU’s resurgence has not been led by its returning players. Players like Cannen Cunningham and Shawn Williams have seen their playing time plummet.

That seems to suggest that maybe the turnaround has been sparked by great recruiting. But while SMU’s recruiting is getting better, the best recruits aren’t coming in until next year. This year’s two big recruits, elite JUCO center Yanick Moreira, and freshman wing Keith Frazier have been outstanding. But even when healthy, both have been playing less than 20 minutes per game. The turnaround hasn’t been built on great recruiting.

But it has been built on new players. Two transfers, the 3-star, turnover prone, soft Villanova big man named Marcus Kennedy has grown into a physical finisher around the rim. Meanwhile a sub 3-star PG named Nic Moore has suddenly combined his great passing skills with outstanding shooting (and allowed Nic Russell to move off-the ball and upgrade his efficiency too.) Meanwhile freshman like Ben Moore and Sterling Brown have far exceeded their recruiting rank.

This ability to bring unknown pieces along rapidly has turned a team that was second to last in CUSA into the kind of team that is competitive with the big boys in the American. And while it may be painful for some NBA fans to admit it, Larry Brown deserves a ton of credit for the turnaround.

Third Year Coaches

Former Coach

2009

2010

2011

New Coach

2012

2013

2014

G. Washington

Karl Hobbs

-3

4

-1

Mike Lonergan

-1

4

13

Oklahoma

Jeff Capel III

23

5

2

Lon Kruger

5

13

15

Utah

Jim Boylen

15

3

1

L. Krystkowiak

-12

5

13

Arkansas

John Pelphrey

2

4

4

Mike Anderson

3

7

12

Tennessee

Bruce Pearl

15

16

10

Cuonzo Martin

10

9

17

Providence

Keno Davis

9

8

6

Ed Cooley

5

9

12

North Carolina St.

Sidney Lowe

9

10

6

Mark Gottfried

13

16

9

Missouri

M. Anderson

23

17

13

Frank Haith

23

16

14

Maryland

Gary Williams

13

20

12

Mark Turgeon

3

12

12

Georgia Tech

Paul Hewitt

5

16

5

Brian Gregory

-2

5

3

Miami FL

Frank Haith

13

13

11

Jim Larranaga

12

20

8

Penn St.

Ed DeChellis

13

6

14

Pat Chambers

3

1

7

UNLV

Lon Kruger

9

14

15

Dave Rice

12

13

8

Texas A&M

Mark Turgeon

15

19

12

Billy Kennedy

4

5

1

Duke’s interior defense looked substantially improved on Saturday. Maryland drew up two straight plays to get the ball to Charles Mitchell in the paint while trailing by 1 point in the final seconds, and both times Duke’s defenders held their ground and denied him the basket. Mark Turgeon looked incredibly disappointed after the loss. His team has really been lacking a marquee victory to build some momentum this season, and the Terrapins came so close.

But a one point win shouldn’t have change the overall picture here.  Somehow Texas A&M is worse without Mark Turgeon and Maryland has been worse with him. And perhaps that is the final lesson. There is no magic formula for when a coach turns things around. Sometimes it happens in year one, sometimes it happens in year two, and sometimes it never happens at all.

Close Losses are Less Damaging, But Don't Push it Too Far

We’re reaching that point in the year where the computers (the margin-of-victory based predictions) and team’s resumes are often irreconcilably different. This week Pittsburgh lost another heartbreaker to Syracuse on a Tyler Ennis buzzer beater, and then lost at North Carolina after Lamar Patterson missed a wide-open game-tying three in the final seconds. Pittsburgh is a good team. Their riveting comeback after North Carolina went up by 12 points late in Saturday’s game, shows their ability. But having lost to every elite team on their schedule, there is now nothing Pittsburgh can do, outside of winning the ACC tournament, to earn an elite NCAA seed.

Meanwhile, smart fans everywhere are expressing how Syracuse is “lucky” to be undefeated because of all their close victories. If Syracuse were given the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament right now, a substantial number of observers would complain that they don’t deserve it.

Others (perhaps more likely to live in upstate New York) will argue that Syracuse is not “lucky” and that Syracuse has a special ability in close games. After all, Tyler Ennis has a historically low turnover rate for a freshman PG, and his ability to remain calm in pressure situations has won games for Syracuse time and time again.

I’m not willing to go that far. Tyler Ennis is a brilliant point guard, but as he showed with his late-game charge when trailing NC State by one point, he isn’t superhuman. Ennis can’t bail Syracuse out in every close game. On Saturday, it was Syracuse’s pressure defense that caused two turnovers in the final 25 seconds, including the live-ball TO that led to the go-head basket, not Ennis’ clutch play. Ennis is a special player whose decision-making will cause Syracuse to win a lot of close games. But like Shabazz Napier, whose game-winning three rattled out forcing UConn to overtime against Memphis Saturday, Ennis won’t make the winning play every time.

Given all this, you might assume I’d side with the “margin-of-victory” crowd over the “resume” crowd. But in fact I want to argue the opposite.

The point that people miss every year when looking at the computer rankings is that you play to win the game! That is the objective criteria by which teams should be judged. I know we tend to get confused in college basketball because teams are not selected for the NCAA tournament based on their winning percentage. The NCAA often issues vague guidelines about how they are supposed to select the “best” teams and then goes and implements an even more illogical procedure based on how teams have fared against the top teams in the RPI.

But to argue for seeding or selection based on predictive modeling is to argue that Pittsburgh shouldn’t have been heartbroken when Ennis hit the three point buzzer beater on Wednesday. To argue that close losses should count nearly as much as close wins essentially makes the season a hopeless marathon.

Hey Arizona St. fans, don’t storm the court on Friday after beating Arizona. (Well, technically you shouldn’t have stormed the court anyhow because there was still 0.7 seconds left on the clock. And Jahii Carson should not have been hanging on the rim either. That could have drawn a technical foul. And Carson’s bucket was a huge mistake because it gave Arizona another chance when Carson could have easily run out the clock. But I’m getting off track here.) Arizona St. shouldn’t have rushed the court because all they did was improve their margin-of-victory numbers from 33rd to 30th nationally.

Most people agree with this, but a problem we often struggle with is that if we reward teams based only on wins and losses, the NCAA tournament is inevitably unfair. Pittsburgh is going to be seeded far too low for their ability, and that is going to punish some unlucky team that has to face Pittsburgh early. And it isn’t just Pittsburgh. Assuming the 15-10 Tennessee Volunteers make the tournament, they will probably be one of the strongest 12 seeds a five seed has ever faced. And let’s not count out Oklahoma St. Despite a hideous losing record in the Big 12 right now, no coach wants to face Oklahoma St. and Marcus Smart early in the tournament. Assuming the Cowboys make it, they will probably be criminally under-seeded given their overall talent-level. If you earn a high seed this year and have to face Pittsburgh, Tennessee, or Oklahoma St., you will be screaming that the tournament is not fair.

But fairness isn’t always about equal outcomes. In my eyes, the fairness question is this one: Does the committee have an objective process based on wins and losses to evaluate teams, and do they fill in the brackets randomly (so that everyone has an equal chance of drawing a team like Pittsburgh in their region.) I think the current NCAA process comes pretty close to that.

Certainly, I would like to see some refinements to the process. I’d like to see the committee use a team’s record vs the Pomeroy Top 50 instead of the RPI Top 50. Right now, Utah’s poor non-conference strength-of-schedule means Pac-12 teams aren’t getting enough credit for beating a solid Utah team. I would like to see an AP reporter allowed in the selection committee room to allow for greater transparency. Part of having an objective process is having a transparent process.

But Jim Boeheim shouldn’t have to apologize just because a lot of the Syracuse wins have been close. You play to win the game. And even if the Orange might not be my personal bracket pick right now, they are 25-0.

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