Take Three: Coach with the most on the line

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
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Ben Howland, Josh Pastner and Tom CreanUS PresswireBen Howland, Josh Pastner and Tom Crean have lofty expectations to live up to this season.
Editor's Note: We want to be very clear here -- this is not a piece about the hot seat. Rather, it's one that identifies three coaches who have a lot on the line in 2012-13. Whether it’s taking that first big step of your career, fulfilling sky-high expectations at a school dying to return to the Final Four or using a high-profile recruiting class to revive your career.

Dana O'Neil: Ben Howland, UCLA

At best, the Bruins coexisted as a dysfunctional family a season ago, hoping and wishing their prodigal son, Reeves Nelson, would mend his ways. They prayed that Josh Smith would recognize that size only works when it’s tailored appropriately.

Neither got the message, and the Bruins had to regroup to salvage a 19-14 season amid catcalls for Howland’s job. But, out of a near debacle of a season, Howland emerged with the top recruiting class in the country, pulling in a 4-for-4 with Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams.

The death knell has stopped sounding for Howland, replaced by the joyous ringing of expectation.

For now, at least.

Because, although the ringtone has changed, the pressure has not. Howland enters this season with a ton on the line -- his reputation as a blue-collar taskmaster, the lofty hopes for the tradition of Westwood, the renewed ascension of the abysmal Pac-12 and his job.

On his daily to-do checklist, Howland should have written: get Muhammad cleared by the NCAA, soothe Parker’s balky hamstring, win the Pac-12, win the Pac-12 tournament, get to the Final Four.

Yep, that’s downright crazy -- but crazy is the new sane in college basketball, where top recruiting classes are expected to go robo-Kentucky and win the whole thing overnight, especially when a top class arrives on a campus with a little bit of history in its back pocket.

And the only way to achieve all of that is to turn that dysfunctional mess into a well-oiled machine.

Simple, right?

Jason King: Josh Pastner, Memphis

Fans of most programs grant new coaches a one-year “honeymoon” period before judging whether the hire was a good one. At Memphis, though, folks have been a little more patient with Pastner. And rightfully so.

Pastner was just 31 when the Tigers tapped him to replace John Calipari in April 2009. With Tyreke Evans leaving early for the NBA draft and Calipari’s top recruits following him to Kentucky, the program had basically been gutted, meaning Pastner would have to start from scratch.

The chore would’ve been tough on anyone, but it seemed especially daunting for a baby-faced rookie who inherited a program that annually finishes in the top 10 nationally in attendance.

Pastner has averaged 25 wins in his first three years while guiding the Tigers to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons. Memphis won the 2012 regular-season Conference USA title despite an injury to freshman standout Adonis Thomas.

But, despite the progress Pastner has made as a coach, he has yet to win an NCAA tournament game -- and expectations for Pastner will be elevated in 2012-13. The Tigers lost leading scorer Will Barton to the NBA draft, but they return every other key piece of last season’s squad. Included in that group is Joe Jackson and Thomas, who is healthy again after missing the final 16 games of 2012. A standout recruiter, Pastner also is expecting big things from Shaq Goodwin, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward who could emerge as one of the country’s top freshmen.

With a roster stacked with experience and talent, Pastner knows there will be no room for excuses if his squad doesn’t perform well. He also realizes a league title won’t be enough.

Pastner’s job certainly wouldn’t be in jeopardy if the Tigers fell short of expectations. His contract, which pays $1.7 million annually, runs through 2017. And his success on the recruiting trail has given Memphis fans reason for continued hope.

Still, the Tigers boast some of the most passionate fans in the country. Pastner has done enough to appease them in his first three seasons, but he’ll certainly come under greater scrutiny if he doesn’t take things a few steps further this season.

He has the players and, even at age 34, the experience.

Eamonn Brennan: Tom Crean, Indiana

Just four years ago, IU coach Tom Crean inherited an imploded shell of what used to be the Indiana Hoosiers. Kelvin Sampson left the program on prohibitive recruiting probation. Quality talents jumped ship. (One of them, Eli Holman, allegedly threw a potted plant in Crean's office on his way to Detroit.) A little-used former walk-on named Kyle Taber was the lone returning contributor. The Hoosiers lacked adequate practice facilities. A proud fan base had been repeatedly kicked in the proverbial teeth.

It was, in short, a disaster.

Four years later, the progress in Bloomington is unimpeachable. The Hoosiers returned not only to the NCAA tournament but to the Sweet 16 in 2012, thanks in large part to Crean's crucial recruitment of Indiana native and surefire preseason All-American Cody Zeller. IU's Cook Hall is among the nation's most glimmering workout facilities-museums-recruiting toys. Indiana likely will enter the 2012-13 season ranked No. 1 in the country, expecting not only a chance at the national title but a coronation -- the moment when, after a decade of muck, Hoosiers basketball will finally rejoin the ranks of the elite.

Which makes this season absolutely crucial for Crean. It's not that he doesn't have the fans behind him. (He does, in droves.) It's not that he is, in any way, shape or form, in danger of losing his job. (Of course not.)

It's this: The 2012-13 season could be the one in which Crean establishes himself as one of the great coaches of the modern era at one of the marquee programs in the sport. It's the season when Crean could go from a good coach with some Dwyane Wade-to-thank success to a paragon of the profession. It's the year that could start a Caliparian self-sustaining cycle of success, the year that jump-starts a decades-long Hoosiers revival.

After these past four years, Crean's job couldn't be more secure. Which is why his fifth year is all about The Leap, for himself and for his program, and why the 2012-13 season is just as crucial as any of its predecessors.

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