College basketball had nearly 60 coach hirings in the late winter/spring of 2019. Last season, most of those men had expectedly bumpy traverses through their debut campaigns.
But about one-fourth of them did pretty well for themselves. None so great as to enter the coach-of-the-year conversation at the national level (which seldom happens for a first-year coach in a new spot), but a handful were on their way to getting their teams to the NCAA Tournament before all that had to be sliced away.
On Monday,through the prism of waiting four years after those hires. So the coaches listed below, hired in 2019, aren't graded so much as they're lauded for immediately getting things going on the right track. This is a reminder of who did best off the bat.
I came up with 12 who were undeniably successful in their first year, to varying impacts. This year's list is, and is guaranteed to be deeper than next year's due to the fact COVID-19 has forced upon the sport in 50-plus years.
2019's most immediately successful hires
|Mark Pope: We've got a crowded field of candidates -- which is refreshing -- but no one can say they had a better first season with their school than BYU's Pope. He tops the list. Unlike a couple of other coaches listed below, Pope didn't win a regular season or postseason conference championship (Gonzaga and all), but his Cougar team's 24-8 record helped its No. 13 KenPom ranking to be best among all teams with a first-year coach. BYU as high as a 5 seed at the time of the season's halt. Pope, 47, was helped by having the best 3-point-shooting team. BYU's 41.9% clip from beyond the arc aided the Cougars to their best conference finish since 2010-11, when Jimmer Fredette was on the roster and the team landed a No. 3 seed.|
|Casey Alexander: No coach was in a less enviable spot, in terms of replacing who he was replacing, than Alexander having to take over for his former college coach. Rick Byrd built Belmont into a mid-major authority and opted to retire in 2019 with many good years left in him. All Alexander did was scoot over from rival Lipscomb -- just down the road in Nashville -- and coach the Bruins to a 26-7 record, NCAA Tournament auto bid included after the team's gripping 76-75 OVC title game win against Murray State. Belmont finished its season on a 12-game winning streak. One silver lining to not having an NCAA Tournament was how many teams were put in the unprecedented position of finishing with a win.|
|Juwan Howard: At the start of December, Howard was on track to finish atop this list. The last big hire of the 2019 offseason, Howard took Michigan from unranked to top-five status in the span of a week in late November. It was before, then after, Thanksgiving when the Wolverines won the Battle 4 Atlantis, capped with giving Gonzaga one of its two losses last season. Michigan started 7-0, then got hit with injuries before zigging and zagging to a 19-12 mark and finishing ninth in the Big Ten. But the Wolverines were ranked second-highest of any team here in the final KenPom standings (16th) and obviously had a better season on the whole than was expected after the abrupt departure of John Beilein. Howard's been hit hard as of late: five-star 2020 prospect Josh Christopher picked Arizona State over Michigan; Isaiah Todd reneged on his commitment to head to the G League; Colin Castleton and David DeJulius both transferred out.|
|John Brannen: Mick Cronin's departure for UCLA opened up a good job in Cincinnati, a school that doesn't change coaches often. Enter stage left: Brannen, the former Northern Kentucky coach who made the most of a tricky situation (at times). Even though preseason All-American pick Jarron Cumberland (15.5 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.5 rpg) wasn't quite able to live up to his reputation, the Bearcats still found a groove late and finished 20-10, tied atop the regular season standings in the American Athletic Conference. Cincy was in a spot to head to a 10th straight NCAA Tournament if it won a game or two in the AAC bracket. Best of all for Brannen: he got a job upgrade, a pay upgrade, and since Northern Kentucky is right next to Cincinnati, he never had to move!|
|Darrin Horn: Only two first-year coaches took home automatic bids to a 2020 NCAA Tournament that never was. Horn and his NKU Norse were there with Belmont in doing so. The Norse finished 23-9 and won the Horizon League title out of the No. 2 seed spot, beating UIC in the championship game on March 10, approximately 44 hours before the season was killed. When NKU made this hire, Horn was a bolt from the blue; almost no one realized he was the favorite until news broke that he landed the job. One year in, it looks like the right call. The school has three tourney titles in the past four years.|
|Mick Cronin: UCLA was the anti-Michigan. The Bruins were nowhere near a success story -- they looked outright dysfunctional through the first two months of the season -- until we all looked up in early February and realized this team might actually go from an 8-9 record with home losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton to snagging an at-large tournament bid. It would have likely happened, completing one of the more ridiculous in-season turnarounds from a power-conference team we've ever seen. UCLA finished 19-12 and was the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. It won nine Quad 1/2 games and managed to make Cronin look as good this season as almost any of his years at Cincinnati. Next year's roster is even better. The Bruins are back?|
|Eric Musselman: Nevada's Musselman went for the fish-out-of water pick when he accepted the Arkansas job in April 2019, but Musselman's always been a road-less-traveled guy as is. He had good gains from the get-go. The Hogs went 20-12, though the 7-11 SEC record (and the résumé on the whole) made them a bubblicious team. This squad probably would have needed an appearance in the SEC semifinals to grant inclusion to the Big Dance. Still, it's an improvement on the year before. If Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe return, Arkansas will be in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.|
|Dane Fischer: Set a reminder, if you'll wind up needing it, in 2024 to check in on a guy named Nathan Knight and see what he's doing in the NBA. Because he's gonna be in the league. Knight was the best player in the CAA this season, averaging 20.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and shooting 58.5% from 2-point range. He made things easier for Fischer in his first season with the Tribe, who ended up as an 21-11 team -- a seven-win leap from a season ago. Fischer's a talented young coach and just might be the guy to get William & Mary, more than 80 years without a Dance ticket, to eventually get its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.|
|Carm Maciariello: The Saints, led by wonderful sophomore point guard Jalen Pickett, closed the season strong for Maciariello, a Siena alumnus. The Saints won 12 of their final 13 games and ended with a 20-10 record, winding up as the top team in the MAAC. Maciariello's team had a weird distinction: it went the longest last season in going undefeated at home but winless away from home. That lasted for 18 games, until Siena won at Iona on New Year's Eve to break the pattern. Two days later Siena fell at St. Peter's and then didn't lose again the rest of the way. With Pickett back for next season, the Saints figure to be the favorite in the league and make their first tournament since 2010.|
|Eric Henderson: You have to consider that South Dakota State didn't just lose its coach, T.J. Otzelberger, in 2019. It lost senior Mike Daum (maybe the best player in program history) and David Jenkins Jr., who followed Otzelberger to UNLV. Jenkins was another guy on his way to being in the top five to ever wear a Jackrabbits uniform. So Henderson getting SDSU to 22-10 is laudable. The Jackrabbits went 13-3 in Summit League play and were the No. 3 2-point shooting team in college basketball (57.4%). Quietly, it was a really nice season out in Brookings, South Dakota.|
|Todd Golden: This list is not shy on well-regarded coaches under the age of 40. Golden won't turn 35 until this summer and would appear to have a sunny future in this business. San Francisco was not only a fun watch, it most notably pushed top-ranked Gonzaga to the edge in January (83-79 home loss) and wound up with a 22-12 record, with a win over BYU in that mix. USF's No. 74 ranking to end the season at KenPom was its third highest in the history of those rankings, which date back to 1997. This was Golden's first season, and the Dons haven't made the NCAAs since 1998, so dare to dream?|
|Steve Alford: Nevada had one of the biggest hires, in terms of name recognition, when it brought in Alford after his run at UCLA that ended in a mid-season flameout/firing. Alford inherited a solid stable of players from Eric Musselman, and all things considered, he did all right in year one. Nevada was 19-12 and finished tied for second in the Mountain West; the Mountain West Tournament-ending loss to 9-24 Wyoming was a bitter pill, though. Wolf Pack guard Jalen Harris was clearly the second best player in the league to Malachi Flynn. Alford and his staff set him up well, and now they await to see if he'll return or keep his name in the draft pool for 2020.|