As we wind down this Conference USA basketball season this article is taking a look at who has the hottest coaching seats in Conference USA. This article – and discussions similar to it – are vital to the future of basketball in this conference.
Don’t think so? Then you’ve not been paying attention to a historically bad season for Conference USA basketball. Right now, UAB at the top of the conference is projected only as a 14 or 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and NO TEAMS are currently projected to make the NIT. Before you try to blame this situation on conference realignment, consider the previous basketball success at several of our member schools.
I do realize realignment has hurt us. This is the 20th anniversary of the Conference USA basketball tournament, and only two teams currently in Conference USA has won that tournament. UAB is one team and the other left the conference and came back, looking at you Charlotte.
Despite all that UAB, UTEP, Middle Tennessee, ODU, La Tech, Western Kentucky, and Charlotte all have some nice basketball accomplishments to show off. There is no reason this conference can’t be a prominent mid major on the basketball scene. Step one is getting the right coach at each program and investing in facilities.
I would love to see your feedback and thoughts in the comment section below. Please remember these are just my observations and I’m sure each fan base will have some who agree and disagree. I tried to consider each program and their individual expectations, along with realities of their history when composing this list. With that stated, all Conference USA basketball programs have to care about each other. Otherwise, we will just continue to slip down the RPI scale, miss out on postseason trips, and start losing recruits. Without further hesitation, here is our list counting down the hottest seats around Conference USA.
7.) ODU- Jeff Jones (3rd season) Hot Seat Meter 5.5
This selection may surprise some readers. To start, I’ve always been perplexed at the Jeff Jones hire at ODU. While Jones had some great years at Virginia, and later at American University, he had not guided American to the Dance in five years when ODU hired him. American was actually coming off a 10-20 season when the Monarchs swooped him up. No doubt Jones had some success at his previous two stops, but momentum had stalled.
Blaine Taylor had a nice run at ODU from 2001-2013. Taylor guided the Monarchs to four NCAA Tournament bids from 2005-2011 before the team imploded and finished 2-20 in his final year. Despite that one horrid season, I view the ODU position as a very strong program, and it felt like they settled for Jones. With that stated, Jones got the team to a .500 record in year one, and then the team turned the corner last year.
A strong out-of-conference record meant little after the Monarchs picked up five conference losses and bowed out of the Conference USA Tournament earlier than most anticipated. All that could have slid had the Monarchs capitalized on this season’s expectations. Most experts had ODU winning Conference USA and riding high in March. Unfortunately, the Monarchs vastly underachieved in and out of conference play.
The Monarchs limped into Conference USA play with a 7-6 record, far below where most thought they’d be. With two games left, ODU already has more conference losses than last year. Since losing a 32 game home winning streak in overtime to UAB, ODU has lost three more conference games at home.
Unless the Monarchs run through the Conference USA Tournament they are going to come up short of all expectations for this season. I feel like ODU has the ability to be a major difference maker in mid major basketball, and I don’t think their fans and administration are going to deal well with failing expectations and late season flops. I feel this seat is getting warmer by the day.
6.) FIU- Anthony Evans (3rd season) Hot Seat Meter 5.5
This is one of the hardest cases to look at. Evans was brought in at FIU after everyone in the Minnesota athletic department consumed lead paint and fired Tubby Smith for Richard Pitino. Evans had a solid run at Norfolk State, including an NCAA tournament win and an NIT appearance.
In three years at FIU Evans has fielded a scrappy squad that has maintained around a .500 record each season. After a hot start in Conference USA play, this team has cooled considerably.
Without much basketball history you have to wonder what the expectation level is for the Panthers. The seat has to be warming up with a late season drop off. Yet this team has shown potential in wins over La Tech and UTEP.
Another fact to consider is it took Evans until his fifth year to get Norfolk State turned around. I think Evans has potential as a coach, and I believe the Panthers hang on to him, but a strong Conference USA finish and a win in the conference tournament could still do him some good.
5.) FAU- Michael Curry (2nd Season) Hot Seat Meter 6.0
Just like their neighbor FIU, the Owls are hard to measure as FAU has not had much basketball success either. Only Matt Doherty (15-13 in one season) has a winning record as a head coach in FAU history. Thankfully for Owl fans, Coach Doh left Boca Raton before they made horrible SMU-style basketball commercials.
In 2008 they hired a proven name in Mike Jarvis, and even he could never quite get the ship turned around.
Two years ago the reigns were given to former NBA player Michael Curry. The results have been horrendous. The real question is if it’s Curry’s fault or more of a program issue. Curry played in the NBA for 12 years and later coached the Pistons for one season and they were able to squeak into the playoffs.
The Owls went 9-20 with only two Conference USA wins in year one for Curry. This season they sit at 7 wins, but have played better in the conference with 5 wins currently.
Bottom line is this basketball program is in really bad shape. Investing the program itself may be the answer instead of hiring another coach. This school’s RPI is hurting the entire conference and something has to give. Only time will tell if that is Michael Curry, facility improvements, or something else.
4.) WKU- Ray Harper (4th season, 3rd full season) Hot Seat Meter 7.0
Harper is in a unique situation on this list. First his Athletic Director has made open-ended comments that lead me to believe this is a make or break season for Harper.
Before coming to WKU, Harper was a legend at the NAIA and Division 2 collegiate levels winning national titles at Kentucky-Wesleyan and Oklahoma City College.
Harper took over a 5-11 WKU team midseason and guided them to a Sunbelt title four years ago. Three straight 20-win seasons and another ticket to the big dance followed in his first three full seasons as coach. Despite his success, you just get the feeling Harper is not Athletic Director Todd Stewart’s guy.
The Hilltoppers are currently hovering around .500, so that doesn’t bode well for Harper dealing with an unpleasant boss. What WKU does have in it’s favor this season are victories over MTSU and UAB. The argument can be made that Western Kentucky is playing their best basketball down the stretch and the team has shown they can compete with the top of the conference. It’s entirely possible this team makes a run at the tournament in Birmingham.
On the flip side, they may have dug themselves too deep a hole seeding-wise with their inconsistency. If WKU can’t finish strong in Birmingham, Ray Harper may have a house on the market in Bowling Green.
3.) North Texas- Tony Benford (4th Year) Hot Seat Meter 7.5
After six consecutive winning seasons and two NCAA bids, Mean Green coach Johnny Jones bolted for LSU. North Texas then brought in Tony Benford, who has not been able to continue the success Jones had before him.
In fairness to Benford, he did go through a conference switch from the Sunbelt to Conference USA. The problem with that argument is Benford’s only team in the Belt went 12-20.
Despite the gradual improvement the last two years, the Mean Green never really broke through. Now UNT is treading backwards with an 11-18 record. Two of those wins were against Jarvis Christian and Texas College, so they don’t even count for RPI purposes. To date, The Mean Green’s only wins over teams with winning records are Sam Houston St & La Tech.
A restless fan base with memories of the Johnny Jones days may be the final straw in the Tony Benford era in Denton. Who knows, Johnny Jones just might be available to take his old job back soon.
2.) UTSA- Brooks Thompson (10th year) Hot Seat Meter 9.0
Brooks Thompson has the claim of guiding the Roadrunners to their only NCAA Tournament victory back in 2011. Problem is, it was a First Four play-in game against Alabama State. In 10 years Thompson has only four winning seasons and his teams have steadily regressed in recent years.
In the last four seasons, only last year ended in double-digit victories. At 14-16, last years Roadrunners lost a chance at a .500 season on a half court FIU heave in the Conference USA Tournament.
This season the Roadrunners have piled up losses to Loyla (Chi), Central Arkansas (Scottie Pippen wasn’t playing), Texas Southern (their only out-of-conference win), Texas A&M CC, and Texas Permian Basin. If that wasn’t enough, they were throttled by Texas 116-50. The Longhorns won by 15 more total points than UTSA managed scored. In short they are one of the top RPI killers in Conference USA basketball.
The flames around Thompson’s seat should be boiling to the point of a Burger King grill. Despite not having much basketball tradition, the UTSA administration should follow the route they took with football coach Larry Coker. It’s time for some basketball investment and shake up in San Antonio.
1.)Tim Floyd- UTEP (6th year) Hot Seat Meter: 9.5
Coach Floyd is currently roaming the Miner sidelines for the 6th year. Despite a track record of success (and rule breaking) Floyd has not gotten the Miners to the NCAA Tournament once.
During his tenure Floyd has only reached postseason three times with two trips to the NIT and one trip to the CBI. While recruiting classes have been solid, the lack of postseason success is making Floyd’s seat hotter than the El Paso sun.UTEP has hosted the Conference USA Tournament twice under Floyd and failed to gain the automatic invite either time.
This season Floyd’s Miners have dropped games to FIU (home), Norfolk State, Southern Miss, & UTSA. A recent hot streak seemed to give the Miners new hope as Floyd had his team transition to a small-ball style. That momentum came crashing down with back-to-back losses to ODU and Charlotte. Those losses put Floyd back at the hottest seat in Conference USA.
The Miner fan base is one of the strongest groups in the conference, and excuses only go so far in the Don Haskins Center. Floyd’s predecessor Tony Barbee was able to get the Miners into the dance, despite not showing much coaching ability at Auburn. Without an unlikely run in the Conference USA Tournament, Floyd may be the first Miner coach since Jason Rabedeaux to leave UTEP without a single trip to March Madness.
The last time Floyd failed to get a team to the Tournament was his two year stint as the Idaho head man in the ’80s. With the reputations of Miner basketball and Floyd’s coaching ability, one is left to think this just might not be a good fit for either side.
My next article will flip the script and we will rank the top seven coaching jobs this year in Conference USA. Keep checking back for that post and fire away in the comment section about this one.