College basketball coaching moves: 2018's top five most immediately rewarding hires

With the season wrapped and with all the biggest hires settled for 2019, it's time once again to assess which schools paid immediate dividends with hirings of a year ago -- and which jobs that just got filled set up to be most successful. This is an exercise we've done the past two years at CBS Sports. Last week, we also did our annual four-years-later grading of the most notable hires of 2015

First, let's see which coaches did the best job in Year No. 1. In 2018, I wrote this: "So which of the coaches you're about to read up on will make the NCAA Tournament next year in their first season on the job? I'm setting the over/under at 3.5."

That was the perfect over/under, as you'll read now. 

The hire: Chris Mack

Arguably the highest-profile hire of 2018 turned out to be a good decision for Louisville. The Cardinals had questions about their viability heading into last season, but wound up going 20-14 and earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAAs. All told, it's fair to say U of L slightly outperformed expectations. The upset loss to Minnesota in the first round of the tournament was a minor stunner, but Mack's done a good job so far. 

Mack inherited a really tough schedule and still kept the ship steady. Plus, he and his staff turned Louisville into a recruiting player: the Cardinals have the No. 9-ranked class in 2019.  

The hire: Kermit Davis

Big-time overachievers in Oxford: after being picked 13th in the SEC in the preseason, Davis and the Rebels got a No. 8 seed in the NCAAs and finished 20-13. Ole Miss is a bottom-three job in the SEC, but let's watch the Rebels finish in the top half of the conference more often than not under Davis, who's been getting it done in myriad ways for two decades as a head coach.

Davis wasn't a splashy hire, but he made power-conference ADs who passed on him in the previous few years look foolish by taking Mississippi to the NCAA Tournament in his first season. Formidable coach, great hire.

The hire: Craig Smith

Let this list be a reminder/warning sign/gentle piece of encouragement for fans with new coaches for 2019-20. Look at the biggest winners and you'll notice that while a few made the NCAA Tournament, not one team with a new coach actually won a Big Dance game. But Smith and Utah State fared well on the whole, unquestionably, winning the regular-season and conference championships in the Mountain West. 

USU finished 28-7 and earned a No. 8 seed. Smith (hired away from South Dakota) also turned Sam Merrill into the best player in the Mountain West. Even better: Merrill will be back for his senior season. Smith is 46 years old and seems poised to get Utah State to such a level it only previously hit under former longtime coach Stew Morrill. 

The hire: Penny Hardaway

No NCAA Tournament for Hardaway in his first season, but the recruiting wins are big enough to warrant inclusion on this list. Memphis secured James Wiseman, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2019. Memphis has the 11th-ranked class in college basketball and projects as a 2020 NCAA Tournament squad. 

What the Hardaway hire did for the morale of the team and the city validates this as an immediately successful hire. But record-wise, Memphis was good. The Tigers went 22-14, winning more games in Hardaway's first season than they had since 2013-14, the last time the school made the NCAA Tournament. 

The hire: Chris Jans

Think about how different the 2019 NCAAs would have been different had New Mexico State defeated Auburn in the first round. A good hire by NMSU, as Jans won the most games of any coach on this list, commanding the Aggies to a 30-5 record and only two losses in 2019. Very nearly won the first Big Dance game for the school in decades, to boot. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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