- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Every new coach hopes to start strong. But that’s rarely an easy task. The transition is usually difficult. New system, new staff, new players and new rules. Sometimes, however, it works immediately, in the right situation. The following coaches have a chance to orchestrate impressive debuts at their new schools.
Craig Neal (New Mexico): The Lobos should be the favorites to retain their Mountain West crowns. Neal, a former assistant for Steve Alford, guaranteed continuity and stability for a squad that brings back conference player of the year Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk. The Lobos lost Tony Snell, a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Bulls, but they’ve added a recruiting class that includes top-100 prospect Cullen Neal (the coach's son), who should be available at some point next season after a recent health scare during the team’s trip to Australia.
Joe Dooley (Florida Gulf Coast): “Dunk City” lost its maestro when Andy Enfield switched coasts to take the USC gig. But Dooley, a former Kansas assistant, inherits a roster that features four of the top five scorers from last season. That returning crew includes point guard Brett Comer (8.0 PPG, 6.6 APG), a star throughout FGCU’s Sweet 16 run in March. Plus, transfers Jamil Jones (Marquette) and Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech) will be available in 2013-14. Dooley’s program is in good shape as it prepares for the upcoming season.
Steve Alford (UCLA): His messy exit from New Mexico only compounded the surprise surrounding the hire. But he’s the Bruins’ $18.2 million leader now. And even though he seized a roster that features just six scholarship players from last season, Alford commands a UCLA squad that could compete for the Pac-12 title it won in 2012-13. Kyle Anderson, David Wear, Travis Wear, a slimmer Tony Parker (he’s lost 20 pounds this offseason) and top-100 point guard Zach LaVine will anchor Alford’s first UCLA squad. There’s plenty of talent to utilize in his first season.
Robert Jones (Norfolk State): Jones was given the interim coaching title hours after Anthony Evans left to fill the opening at Florida International. That “interim” label, however, shouldn’t stick. Norfolk State, the reigning MEAC regular-season champion, is stacked entering next season. Pendarvis Williams, last season’s conference player of the year, is one of four starters from last season returning in 2013-14. Jones’ rise from assistant to interim head coach was unexpected, but he has the pieces to be successful in his first season. Norfolk State didn't lose a game in conference play last season. That streak could continue under Jones.
Bobby Hurley (Buffalo): The former Duke star left his brother Danny’s staff at Rhode Island to take his first head-coaching job. Buffalo finished 7-9 in the MAC and 14-20 overall last season. But six of the Bulls’ top seven scorers from last season are back. And with Javon McCrea (18.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.6 BPG) and Will Regan (11.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG) inside, Hurley’s squad will boast one of the league’s top frontcourts. Last year wasn’t a great one for the program, but Hurley has the building blocks to make immediate improvements.
Ron Verlin (Pacific): Verlin, a longtime assistant under Bob Thomason, will guide Pacific as it returns to the West Coast Conference. Three of his top five scorers return, including Sama Taku (8.1 PPG, 38 percent from the 3-point line). Brazilian center Gabriel Aguirre could help, too. Pacific finished second to Long Beach State in the Big West last season, and the Tigers could make noise in the WCC, too. The league’s hierarchy is undefined, with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s losing key players. So there’s a chance for multiple teams to rise. Pacific could be one of them.
Brad Underwood (Stephen F. Austin): The new Lumberjacks coach took a hit when he lost three of his top five scorers and four seniors total. But the reigning Southland champions can build around senior Desmond Haymon (10.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 37 percent from beyond the arc) and junior Jacob Parker (7.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 41 percent from the 3-point line). Junior college transfers Tanner Clayton and Sharife Sergeant, a pair of 6-foot-9 athletes, will give Underwood some size inside. If the Lumberjacks are tough on defense again (12th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, last season), they should be a threat to win the Southland again.
G.G. Smith (Loyola-Md.): Tubby Smith’s son took over when former coach Jimmy Patsos accepted the Siena job. In the program’s first season as a member of the Patriot League, the Greyhounds should be players in their new conference. Dylan Cormier (16.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG) is the obvious star for a squad that lost three senior standouts. Plus, Jordan Latham (1.2 BPG) and freshman Nick Gorski should help the Greyhounds fill the gaps. Smith is in a solid place for a first-year head coach.
Matthew Graves (South Alabama): Augustine Rubit (All-American honorable mention by The Associated Press last season), Mychal Ammons and Antoine Allen combined to average nearly 40 points per game in 2012-13. Graves, a former Butler assistant, will rely on the trio as the Jaguars make a push in the Sun Belt. In his first news conference, Graves told team supporters that he intends to compete for a league championship in his first season. And with the talent his team returns and Sun Belt powerhouse Middle Tennessee’s move to Conference USA, it’s not a crazy thought.
Chris Casey (Niagara): The bad news is that Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley followed former Niagara coach Joe Mihalich to Hofstra, and T.J. Cline transferred to Richmond. The good news is that top scorer Antoine Mason is back. And that’s a big return. Mason averaged 18.7 PPG last season. He’ll face even more pressure to score now that three of the team’s top five scorers from last season are gone. But Marvin Jordan (8.2 PPG) and a number of new faces will have to back Mason in Casey’s first season. He could do worse, however, than coaching a team that’s led by the MAAC’s top returning scorer.
Every new coach hopes to start strong. But that’s rarely an easy task. The transition is usually difficult. New system, new staff, new players and new rules.